Maiden Voyage to the new Big A

While I love Belmont, I’m always happy to get back to Aqueduct:  I can’t beat the convenience; the races end earlier; I can sleep a little later. Belmont has myriad benefits, but Aqueduct has its advantages, too.

And this year, the return to Aqueduct contained a not insignificant extra frisson: what would the place be like, now that the casino is open?

It would take me a lot to longer to find out that I initially thought, as my beloved A train let me down: I waited nearly an hour for a Far Rockaway train, which is unheard of, arriving at Aqueduct much later than intended.

The changes were immediately noticeable: the clubhouse entrance to Aqueduct has been renovated, and just beyond, Resorts World New York City rises in glory, dwarfing the little racing plant in both aesthetic and size.

Unlike last weekend, the passage from the Aqueduct’s main floor into the casino was open; it was closed last weekend reportedly for crowd control. So many people came to the casino on opening weekend that Genting had to limit the number of people coming in the main entrance and didn’t want people sneaking in through the racing side.

At noon on Saturday, crowd control wasn’t a problem. I’d heard about people waiting in line to use the machines, but there were plenty of empty seats on a beautiful afternoon, even as people steadily streamed in through the ornate entrance.

I’ve been in maybe two casinos in my life, so I’m not expert on their décor. This one is ornate, a little garish, but with areas that look pretty pleasant to hang out, if it weren’t for the flashing lights and constant beeping from the machines.

No televisions were carrying the NYRA channel (to be fair, the races hadn’t yet begun), but the glass wall and terrace along the apron are a welcome acknowledgement to the racing side, and the Aqueduct Buffet offers a nod to the horses.

The food options are varied and reasonably priced, from hamburgers to Chinese to a buffet, and the Cobb salad I got from one of the “grab and go” stations was more than satisfactory…though “grab and go” turned into “grab and wait,” as it took almost 10 minutes in line to pay for it. The place is not without its growing pains.

The Man o’War Room on the second floor of the clubhouse is the same, though the deli there now features pre-made sandwiches instead of those made to order; the tables in the Manhattan Terrace have been removed and replaced with simulcasting carrels, and the bar is gone, waiting, apparently, for a liquor license, as Genting has taken over all the concessions on the racing side.

The Aqueduct subway station is closed, scheduled to re-open shortly, so for now, those who get to Aqueduct need to make their way down to the North Conduit station at the far end of the parking lot towards JFK airport. I’d been told that Genting was running a regular shuttle, and after filing my story at about 5 pm on Saturday night, I ventured forth.

The shuttles accommodate 20 people at a time, and they fill up quickly, so I had to wait for the second shuttle that came around, which took about 15 minutes. It stopped first at a bus stop in the parking lot, then made a loop around the parking lot for no apparent reason, went back to the bus stop, and then headed for the subway, dropping us off at the station at which Aqueduct-bound trains stop…but not at the one at which Brooklyn/Manhattan-bound trains stop.

To get to that one, we had an additional five minute walk, which in and of itself is no problem, but it’s along a poorly maintained, dimly lit walk that wends through a small wooded area. I’m fairly intrepid, but this is not a walk that I’d like to take by myself when it’s dark out, and it’s a disaster for those with any kind of physical impairment.

The subway stop is about half a mile from the track, and it took me 45 minutes to get there. I’ll be walking next time, or perhaps driving until the Aqueduct stop re-opens.

It’s both good news and bad news that if you’re not interested in the casino, going to Aqueduct is the same as it ever was: good news because the casino doesn’t really infringe on the racing side, and bad news because, well, if you were expecting big changes at the Big A, you won’t find them, which is, sort of, a comfort.

After a decade of delay, there was something kind of awesome about seeing the pleasure palace up and running, about seeing it become a reality, about imagining what it might do for New York racing this winter and beyond. At the same time…Aqueduct Racetrack has been around since 1894. The history of racing has been written there, and while its best days as a premier racing venue are behind it, its significance to the sport can’t be underestimated.

So it’s a little sad to see it dependent on the behemoth to its west, a little sad to think about living horses becoming an afterthought to revenue-generating machines, a little sad to see what was once called the greatest sporting venue in the world transformed from its original purpose.  It’s more than a little sad that racing here is dependent on casino revenue to survive.

I’m glad that the casino and the track are run by separate entities, glad that racing people are still in charge at Aqueduct, glad that people with a commitment to New York racing are overseeing the track. I’ll be hopeful that racing in our state will thrive and that our racetracks will be improved and that the people who commit themselves to racing at all levels can earn a better living.

But first, I’ll hope that they get the damned subway platform open…and soon.

April 23, 2011

November 12, 2011

12 thoughts on “Maiden Voyage to the new Big A

  1. Having seen the casino on Breeder’s Cup day I feel you have completely accurately and very eloquently described the transformation of Aqueduct from a racetrack to a racino. And I agree the biggest disappointment is that it seems as though horse racing has become a second class citizen in it’s own home. For as you mentioned living animals to jockeys, trainers, vets, racing employees and horse racing fans to go to work and share their space with this other form of gambling (which has a complete different history and culture) is very disheartening. And for the State to insist on such a marriage shows how they view the two entities. I actually found the Casino Terrace to ‘watch the horses run around the track’ as patronizing since I don’t think you can bet on the track from anywhere the Terrace is adjacent to (maybe I am wrong on this). Sooner or later I hope the State figures it out that these two institutions don’t need to be physically joined together (but this may come to the detriment of Aqueduct Race Track). Until then the least they can do is have the subway platform and entrance open and functioning without relying on a shuttle bus and dangerous unlit path. Finally, for me trying to sell type II slot machines as a casino type game is a complete deception by the State and something I am surprised the “horsemen” or more accurately horse owners and breeders want to be associated with but those are topics for another time. Great pics.

  2. Super eyes-and-ears reporting, Teresa!

    Fascinating photographs; NO LIQUOR LICENSE?; and Genting controls all concessions on both sides of the barrier? Those of us who reside too far from the Big A to casually pay a visit have been fairly informed.

    Though groundbreaking business startup is usually a difficult experience for all involved, some of the details you noticed are beneath acceptible and I am kind of surprised Genting wasn’t more thorough for their Grand Opening.

    I sincerely hope this new grandstand occupant can generate enough capital to really supplement the weakened purse structure, enable important capital improvements, and become a good business partner in the end. Short of these outcomes, oh well for horseracing in New York. But I toll the obvious, again.

  3. I had a similar shuttle-to-A-train experience on Saturday — going around in a circle with a bunch of stops, then finally being dropped off not quite at the subway stop. Probably took 20-25 minutes from walking out the door to arrive at subway. Sunday I knew better and just walked, which took maybe 6-7 minutes.

  4. KOW: I think I heard that betting machines might get over there at that some point. Not positive, but I think so. Also hearing that it’s the MTA that is making the subway opening difficult, that Genting is as eager as we are to have it open.

    Marshall, early indications on the financial side are beyond expectations. We’ll see if that keeps up.

    Gary, thank you. I appreciate those kind words.

    Terry, walking is definitely the better option. I still don’t like that last little bit, and it’s terrible for the handicapped or elderly, but it’ll do for me until the subway platform is open.

  5. Very good comments about the “new” Aqueduct. I’m a long time NYRA patron from Brooklyn and enjoy reading your comments and observations. I was disappointed that the NYRA concessions were closed as I was unable to purchase a serving of Chowder, a racetrack staple. I hope it will be served at the new concession stands.

    Thanks again for your comments.

  6. What I often did coming from Aqueduct was actually walk over to the north(?) end at the Rockaway Parkway entrance and then walked either over to where I could get the Lefferts Branch of the A or sometimes to Rockaway Parkway, where I could get either branch of the A train. It’s a bit of a walk, but one I would do from time-to-time.

    In a thread over on SubChat (http://www.subchat.com/read.asp?Id=1112796), I’ve noted a few times among the things I’d be doing if it were up to me with the Casino would be to have also worked to make the Aqueduct-North Conduit station a two side and one island platform station with the missing track on the Rockaway branch rebuilt so there would be four tracks at Aqueduct-North Conduit and the station, when necessary because of a shutdown of the rest of the Rockaway branch could be used as a terminal. I would also have worked to do with with moving the station north and combining it with the existing racetrack station so that both entrances are on racetrack grounds (along with the new north entrance serving those who actually live nearby, though I believe outside of those going to Aqueduct it’s one of the least-used stations in the entire system, which is why I could get away with making it mainly for racetrack and casino patrons). I also would pay to have ALL A trains go to the Rockaways instead of the split with the Lefferts branch and have the C replace the A to Lefferts (though those along the three stops on the Lefferts branch affected would complain because they would lose their one-seat ride to the express train even though they also would GAIN a one-seat ride to Manhattan in the overnights as the late-night shuttle would also be eliminated).

    As for the new casino itself, it looks good so far, but they obvious have growing pains that are perfectly normal with something new like that.

  7. There are some things that are difficult to comprehend and make sense out of, how the casino and the racetrack will operate and work together. I was there on the first Breeders Cup day (Friday). My friend’s horse was running at Aqueduct. We stayed trackside until after the 5th race. We then decided to go to the casino, and managed to secure a nice spot to sit, eat, and drink near the bar, and in front of the humongous HD TV. We hoped to catch some of the Breeders Cup races there, which we thought would be incredibly awesome. To our consternation, the screen was showing ESPN interviews (with no sound and no closed captioning; makes sense, huh?) The smaller television screens beneath the huge one, had either the same interviews being shone, or are ready for this? Info-mercials! We were laughing at first but, that gave way to head shaking, and asking our waitress, who was very kind and simpathetic, to ask someone to put the Breeders Cup races on because it was part of horseracing’s biggest 2 day event, and even though we were sitting in the casino, there was still the Big A racetrack a few feet away. Our waitress came back minutes later, saying the tech person had stepped away. Later, we asked to speak with a manager. This particular person told us that their cable system was still a work in progress, and although they were able to get some stations, there were some that they couldn’t get. Hearing this rationale made absolutely no sense at all to any of us. They had on ESPN, which was showing football interviews. “You mean to tell us that, you aren’t able to get ESPN 2?” The woman just shrugged her shoulders. I’m sitting with my 2 friends, who do tech support for professional sports, who can’t believe what they’re hearing, and are telling me, “It’s impossible. It’s part of a basic cable package, and if you’re able to get ESPN, you’re certainly able to get ESPN 2.” One of my tech friends has brought his I-pad. We were lucky to be able to bet and watch the first Breeders Cup race and watch it on his I-pad. My friends and I took note, that really no one at the bar, or in our general area, were watching the interview/infomercials. We’re shaking our heads over the idiocy! Our waitress returned saying, she finally located the tech guy and had told him about our request. We looked up, as she was finishing telling us, and lo and behold! The Breeders Cup was now on the humongous television. More people started watching at the bar. More people began to take seats in the area, that we were in, to watch. My friends and I continued to eat and drink there. One or two of us would scamper back to racing part to put in our bets for the Breeders Cup races, and head back to watch, eat, and drink at the casino. This routine went on for about 3 of the Breeders Cup races. Then, we happened to look up, and all the screens were back to showing football players/coaches being interviewed. We could not believe it. Maggie Wolfendale was near where we were sitting, and had been watching the races, too. She couldn’t believe it either, that they had stopped showing the Breeders Cup. She ended up watching one of thse races via my friend’s I-pad. We complained some more. They eventually put the Breeders Cup on the smaller televisions below the jumbo one. People had to stand up to watch, if they had been sitting, eating, and drinking outside of the bar. Another manager came over and spoke to us. They insisted that there was an agreement between NYRA and Genting that prohibited the showing of horseracing events on the big television because, are you ready for this? The manager said that it could give possible business to one entity, at the expense of the other.

    I have absolutely no idea what to believe anymore. It just struck us as complete and utter idiocy, between the various excuses that we heard and the alleged reasoning behind them. One could imagine that there would be plenty of money to go around, and benefit from, for all. Very disturbing, very surreal!

  8. August Song (what a thought-provoking handle…),

    I am both surprised by and not surprised by your description of events that Friday evening. And, your dilemma of comprehension is easily understood though the blend has been rationaled away incessantly these past months of site development. Yes, how the heck are a racino/casino and a racetrack to get along, “to operate and work together?”

    The specific, bad incidents to which you refer were unfortunate to say the least, but can be (with a lot of unwarranted sympathy for Opening Week Blues) excused with the understanding that sometimes things do happen. We at NYRA have delivered our share of embarrassments over the years, to be honest, so Genting is in good company.

    But, your question remains if I understand it correctly: How can a collection of strictly dumb-appealing, one-armed bandits and their ilk coexist with the mentally challenging other-half of the building as long as the operating expenses of each are so different and the profits of one are so extreme? I don’t know the answer, but I have a feeling the apparent quantity of Mr. and Mrs./Miss/Ms. Easy Thrills will win out in the end just because there are more of them than us. In other words, to repeat the obvious, I think this might be the beginning of the end.

    Enjoy horseracing while you can! It’s a great and rare game.

  9. I’ve been there four times and I can honestly say, Belmont (and the best track, Saratoga) can’t open soon enough. Parking is terrible if you’re coming off the Belt. Unless you pay $5 for preferred or $20 for valet (yes I did say $20!!!) you have to park on the other side of the building and pass the casino to get to the track. I agree with everyone on the concessions. You can’t even get a real hot dog there, only foot longs on Italian Bread. I miss the carving stand by the Man O War Room. Also, while I’m not an elitist, I always liked the clubhouse to keep the rowdy ones out.

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