By the time the Gotham was run last Saturday afternoon, Aqueduct might have been at its raw, freezing, wintry worst, but that didn’t seem to matter to the people who braved the elements and were rewarded with a heck of a horse race for their efforts.
It was nice to see the old track—which saw its first race run in 1894—get some positive buzz, particularly as it’s all too easy to find fault with it these days. It’s been only nine years since my first trip to the Big A, but now, it would be impossible to replicate the experiences that made me want to come back.
On that trip, Aqueduct offered two reasonable places for customers to hang out, have a beer, and watch and bet races: the Man o’War Room on the second floor and the Manhattan Terrace on the third. The former, which had a pretty great little sandwich counter staffed by the affable and generous Jimmy, who made sandwiches to order, has been destroyed and is in the process of being transformed into Longshots, the simulcasting area/sports bar now two years overdue.
The Manhattan Terrace, now a shadow of its former self, has a long wall of windows that get glorious western light and offer a far-off vista of Manhattan. It’s equipped with booths, a bar that’s never open, and dozens of betting carrels and televisions. Gone are the tables that encouraged groups to socialize and handicap together; gone are the congenial bartenders. It used to be my favorite spot to hang out at Aqueduct.
NYRA is investing heavily in trying to develop new customers, a laudable goal. One wonders, though, what they hope those new customers will experience when they actually get to the races. I used to bring friends to Aqueduct all the time; now that the only place we have to sit is Equestris for the price of a $30 buffet (higher on big race days), I don’t. There’s simply no comfortable place to hang out, watch races, and wager. The bar on the first floor has possibilities, but as long as it smells like urine—and it does—I’ll pass.
The newcomers that I used to bring the races didn’t care whether we were watching stakes horses or claimers; they didn’t know the difference. They cared about a decent customer service experience, exciting races, and cashing a ticket. If they had a good time, they wanted to come back.
Most of the public areas of Aqueduct have been re-painted in recent years; they are visibly brighter and cleaner, and the murals on the first floor are spirited, lively, and colorful. And while it’s reasonable to avoid investing big sums into Aqueduct with its future uncertain, cleaning up the downstairs bar, putting a few tables back in the Manhattan Terrace, and staffing the bar don’t seem like huge investments. Longshots is supposed to be open by the Wood Memorial, giving Aqueduct live-racing patrons a month to enjoy it, and let’s hope that it is as it was once advertised: a combination simulcast area and sports bar, attractive to people who want to come solely to play the races and to those who want to combine their gambling with a little socializing.
As I tweeted on Sunday and as David Grening wrote yesterday, among those who missed the Gotham this year were director of racing Martin Panza and president/CEO Chris Kay. Things happen; schedules conflict; people get sick. But neither Panza nor Kay is a ubiquitous presence at the track on Saturdays; in fact, I don’t remember the last time I saw either in the paddock. Kay’s last appearance was for the Cigar Mile, back in November. In January, he presented a trophy for a Florida-bred stakes race at Gulfstream, but the monthly New York-bred stakes races at Aqueduct are apparently less compelling. His and Panza’s absences felt a little like the athletic director and principal deciding not to attend the school’s appearance in the semi-finals of a tournament, which isn’t such a big deal if you’ve made it to a few regular season games.
Tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. is the quarterly NYRA board meeting. No agenda has yet been posted, but you’ll be able to find it here, along with the link to stream the meeting.