Newest Belmont Park Offers a View to Racing's Future

Belmont Park first opened in 1905. As the grandstand began to crumble in the 1960s, it was closed in 1963. Downstate racing shifted solely to Aqueduct Racetrack until 1968. That's when what was known then as the New Belmont Park was unveiled, just a few months after the opening of the New Madison Square Garden atop Penn Station. Now, should current plans stay in place, in 2026 the curtain will go up on the newest version of Belmont Park. What it will be called—The Newest Belmont Park?—is unknown, but if there is a single word to describe what awaits horsemen and fans with the third version of the historic facility it would be "magnificent." While the Big A will once again be the singular home of downstate racing through 2026, the task of converting the grandstand into a sparkling, state-of-the-art facility scaled and designed for the times will reach critical mass April 4 when the four-to-six-month-long process of demolishing the iconic 56-year-old structure begins. It's all part of an ongoing process that features infield tunnels, new racing surfaces including an all-weather track, and a facility that will give New York racing a proper downstate home to complement beloved Saratoga Race Course in the 21st Century. "The new Belmont Park will be a thoroughly modern racing and entertainment facility that will take its place on the global stage among iconic venues like Ascot, Longchamp, and the Curragh," said Marc Holliday, head of SL Green Realty Corp., the largest owner of business property in New York City, and chairman of the New York Racing Association's board of directors. "It is an honor to design and develop a venue that will appeal to racing enthusiasts and attract a new generation of fans." Looking at artist renditions, the re-imagined Belmont Park bears little resemblance to the current grandstand. The old grandstand, believe it or not, actually rivals the height of the Empire State Building if stood on one end, while the new one will be about half that length, being basically as long as the clubhouse area of the existing structure. It will have a smaller width and much less standing room, with square footage dropping from about 1.25 million to 275,000. The back of the grandstand, famed for its bricks, arches, and ivy, will be replaced with glass so that patrons throughout the building can look out on the paddock without going outside, a true comfort given that winter racing will be held at Belmont Park once it re-opens and New York State closes Aqueduct and commissions a different use for the property. The number of hospitality areas and amenities will increase dramatically in quantity and quality for all levels of patrons. "By being a non-profit we can play that long game, which is to build a new generation of fans," said Dave O'Rourke, NYRA's president and CEO. "We want to target millennials with events with different type of hospitality and big races. We're looking to offer something to families that will introduce them to horses and nature on the edge of New York City. "There's a lot of unique opportunity here and we're going to have a lot of interest right off the bat, so we need to make a good impression. But we also want it to trickle down and create a new generation of fans. We have to stay patient and dedicated to what we know works. I've seen a lot of different formulas in racing and I don't think I've seen a more successful one than the backyard of Saratoga. "We can't recreate that because it's a different market, but we can look at the market and see what's missing and how can we add to it in a way that will benefit the community and give us an opportunity to expose them to our game. And I think 35 acres of green space in Nassau County is a pretty good bet because that's kind of unique in the area." While final plans for the look of specific inside areas have not been finalized, the facility was designed to create a number of areas that will become hubs for fans and horsemen in the five-story facility. A prime one is the Paddock Club, which will be on the second floor in the center of the building. It will be situated above the horse tunnel leading to the track, with glass allowing viewing of the horses and riders as they proceed to the track. The area can accommodate more than 300 people with seating and will provide easy viewing of the race and paddock. "That should be the coolest area," O'Rourke said about the Paddock Club. "This might be General Admission-Plus. "During big events, it will be a dining area, but on a regular day it's a spot to hang out. We want to give our fans a great view and I think we accomplished that here. If there's a room for a horseplayer, this is it." The concept of great views of the racetrack and the paddock were paramount in designing the entire building. Previously, the back of the grandstand offered precious few views of the paddock, while in the new version a couple of furlongs of glass and windows will offer a view of the paddock and backyard for the entire stretch of the facility. "The building will be smaller but in terms of useability, the amount of seating hospitality will go up. There will be a stark increase in it. What we're going down on is stadium seating. And if you look at Belmont Park now and the capacity, the majority of it was people standing in the middle of the floor. That's not the experience you want," O'Rourke said. "I understand nostalgia and history. What we are trying to do is get people closer to the horses and racing in terms of field of view. This building is a lot narrower. It's a lot more open in terms of the glass and it's situated in a way that no matter where you are in the building, you will be only a few steps away from getting a glimpse of the track or paddock." Basically, the hospitalities will become more high-end as patrons move upward in the building, with suites and preferred seating on the top floors. "We wanted to make it an open park but there are some people who want a slightly more elevated experience on a day-to-day basis," O'Rourke said. "We're not talking a large admission fee, but as you move up in the building there has to be a gated fee at some point because people are expecting to be provided with something if they are actually paying a fee. It's how you do that which is the question, and I think we've done a good job of planning with that." On the first floor, O'Rourke said that on the Eastside (closest to the first turn) there will be a simulcast area for the daily players. On the Westside of the first floor (nearest the eighth pole), there will be what is called a mercado, a food court area with a sports bar ideal for the warmer months. "In the winter, on the least attended days, you will have the first-floor east side and two-thirds of the second floor open. Then as the weather gets better, you open the west side of the first floor and start extending up levels," O'Rourke said. "Suites will always be open and the top floor will have a terrace with a multi-function use. That has the potential for events or endless possibilities when the weather is right." The third floor will house the main restaurant area, akin to the Garden Terrace in the old building. "The third floor is a classic racetrack Garden Terrace restaurant with loge boxes, tiered dining, and an exterior patio overlooking the paddock," O'Rourke said. The top floor, much like the original version of Belmont Park, will have an area for rooftop viewing of the races below a canopy much smaller than the current one, to allow the sun to hit the racetrack on winter days. "On the top floor, two-thirds will be exposed but covered by the canopy. One-third will be covered," O'Rourke said. "It's like having a wedding reception outside and then you can go inside for dinner." Horsemen, according to O'Rourke, will likely gather in an area alongside the walking path for horses to the racetrack. "When you are leaving the paddock and walking out on the right side of the first floor, there will be an area called the Runway Club that will have glass so you can stay there and watch the horses go by. There will be a bar there," O'Rourke said. "I think in the winter you will see a lot of horsemen there because it is so convenient to get to the paddock and hang out. You are right behind the winner's circle." As for the paddock itself, it will be 50% bigger but will be moved forward toward the racetrack. By doing so, the area of the paddock with the saddling stalls and the cherished white pine tree, which is older than the original racetrack, will become part of the backyard area that will encompass 35 acres of green space. The paddock will also be sunken to afford better viewing and better protection from the wind on winter days. Combined with four to five acres gained through a shorter grandstand, it will create a lush green area that can be used by racing fans, neighborhood residents for biking and jogging, or fans attending a concert or hockey game at the 19,000-seat UBS Arena on the west end of the grounds. While the grandstand structure will be significantly smaller, the construction of tunnels to the infield gives NYRA the option of opening the infield for fans for runnings of the Belmont Stakes (G1) and Breeders' Cup. In addition to the frontside construction, NYRA will continue its backstretch modernization campaign with upgrades to the track dining hall, recreation center, and gymnasium, improved Wi-Fi, and building three new dormitories, among other improvements. Add in a mall under construction on Hempstead Avenue across from the facility, and in two years, Elmont, N.Y., will be home to the newest and most fan-friendly venue for racing along with numerous other activities. It will make the grounds an attractive spot for engagement with people in surrounding areas of Nassau County and Queens Village in New York City. "How will this drive new fans?" O'Rourke said. "The design of the building is to service the backyard with the first floor west. There's an area for our core group of fans in the Paddock Club. There's suites and high-end hospitality for owners. So, it has all the things we know we need now. But the long game is the park and it's similar to what happened at Saratoga. We have a 30-plus acre park that you can come up with 100 ideas for depending on the time of year. "We want it to be a place to go to so that you are around our sport."