Sunday, February 5, 2012

Not Your Father's Aqueduct?

I went to Aqueduct Racetrack yesterday to see some promising three-year olds in The Withers Stakes. I was also mildly curious about the new casino attached to the track. While casinos themselves hold no interest for me, their potential support for horse racing does. In particular, I like the idea that the new gaming legislation in Massachusetts might save the racing operations at Suffolk Downs. Readers can see photos of and read about my experiences at Suffolk in earlier blog posts here.
The continued recession and the efforts of some sharks to further take advantage of the poor were both evident in all the “We Buy Houses” signs along Linden Boulevard. No surprise there. What did surprise me was the very large sign at the entrance to Aqueduct. No mention at all of the racetrack. The only signage on Rockaway Boulevard is for the casino. Even as you drive down the entry road, there is no mention of the track. This is when I knew things would be different.
The parking lots were full, the flea market was gone, Resorts World (owned by Genting New York) have built a multi-level parking garage next to the casino building and are renovating the elevated walkway to the subway station. If you had never been there you might be very surprised there even is a racetrack. It is not at all obvious that you could enter the track without first going through the casino. There must be a way to do this since minors are not allowed in the casino and are found all over the track side, often seemingly unattended.
It is the end of the Lunar New Year and both this event and the Malaysian corporate parent of the casino are obvious. The thought of Malaysia reminds me how much I liked Anthony Burgess’ 1950’s trilogy The Long Day Wanes. As good a book about a foreign culture as the Cairo Trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz. Red is the dominant color, costumed staff are walking about handing out give-aways, and it is very hard to find an English language menu at the Oriental restaurant outlet in the casino food court.
The casino itself is big. So big that the players in the jazz combo atop the round central bar on the main floor look like dolls. The vast room has the usual flashing lights and ringing bells associated with what folks used to call slot machines but are now properly termed video lottery terminals or VLTs. This operation takes up two levels. The third level (today) is devoted to a third-tier trade show, with performers, racks of coats, and show tables urging interested persons to call and “Ask for Uncle Lim.”
Now there is a set of patios on the back side of each casino level that allows patrons to go out and actually watch the horses come down the home stretch. The patios also allow patrons to go outside and smoke.
Since I know from experience that there is a racetrack here somewhere, I work my way through the sounds and lights to the track proper. Some things remain constant, mostly the demographics. The casino patrons and the track patrons do not seem very different. All of them on both sides are in the 99%. Languages (other than English) are mostly Spanglish, Jamaican patois, and what I guess is Cantonese. The track side has some Dads minding or not minding their kids. The casino food court has several sets of disabled adults from group homes with their caregivers. These caregivers are paying much closer attention to their charges. Surprisingly little Giants gear on either side.
Whatever racetrack improvements may be in the works as a result of NYRA’s cut of the take are not yet in evidence. The physical plant looks a little worse and the amenities have been reduced. Several small coffee/snack bars are shut, the bar on the upper level grandstand is not in operation, and to make matters worse, some very good elevated grandstand seating has disappeared entirely – eaten up by the third level of the casino. I thought this was going to be the perfect place to try out my new binoculars. No such luck. In fact the current layout drastically reduces the number of seats outside available to patrons, especially those who want to watch the stretch run.
People tell me that the bigger, casino-fueled purses have helped NYRA by attracting more and better horses. This is a good thing, but four months after the opening the average Aqueduct patron has little to like. I must give NYRA high marks for not letting the casino overwhelm their website. NYRA’s Aqueduct website is all racing all the time. A far cry from the second class citizenship of racing on sites like Gulfstream or Philly Park.
How about The Withers you ask? Derby hopeful Alpha went off as the odds-on favorite and did not disappoint. Me, I had the wrong longshot underneath and went home $1.20 lighter than when I started.

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