Aqueduct looks great.
I never thought that it looked quite as bad as many people said, but the improvements over the last few years have resulted in a track that is, yes, attractive.
The murals on the main floor debuted about a year ago; eye-catching, intriguing, they are ubiquitous, and while the Big A regulars don’t seem to pay them much attention, they offer color and energy, often unexpected. Big racing photographs, too, of Samraat, Stay Thirsty, and other Aqueduct stakes winners are displayed prominently, a vibrant reminder of why we’re at the track, and of memorable performances that have taken place at the historic track.
Most of the place seems to have gotten a new coat of paint, and perhaps a lighting upgrade; the interior seems bright, from the main floor all the way upstairs. I confess that I didn’t notice the newly installed “airport-style” seating.
The main-floor dismal, smelly bar, which seemed smoky years after indoor smoking was banned, has been replaced, resplendent in the Big A blue that is featured prominently throughout the place. Champs has become Silks, with new televisions and tables and a handful of bar seats. It was full on Saturday afternoon; once a place to avoid, it now seems inviting.
The third floor, Equestris aside, still seems like a missed opportunity. The bar in the Manhattan Terrace, that light-filled, west-facing space that offers vistas of its eponymous island, is still unstaffed; two outdoor terraces have been given over largely to smokers (and birds). Enclose them, and you’ve got premier hospitality areas with glorious views and natural light.
Longshots opened last April, with free admission for NYRA Rewards customers and the promise of food service. Six months later, NYRA Rewards customers are charged $5 to get in, and the only food on offer appears to be potato chips, though I am told that it might be possible to order from a limited menu of sandwiches. A scan of the place mid-card didn’t reveal anyone taking advantage of that opportunity (though down in Silks, one enterprising group had taken it upon themselves to bring in a pizza).
With its expansive bar, plentiful tables, and dozens of televisions turned to a variety of racing and sports channels, Longshots should have been packed; instead, it was maybe half-empty, and it didn’t take long to figure out why.
Despite assurances last spring that NYRA would wrest concessions back from Genting, that table announcement proclaimed loud and clear that Genting is still in charge, the two-drink minimum and 20% gratuity practically a trademark of the casino company. The 20% required tip made its presence known at Longshots when it opened, to the chagrin of NYRA’s hospitality department, but with Genting still in charge of all concessions on the track side–including Equestris, at which the buffet is a reasonable $30–price gouging is alive and well at the track that this year marks its 130th anniversary.
[Update: Chris Kay said following the NYRA board meeting on Nov. 12 that Genting actually charges $57 per person for the Equestris buffet, and that NYRA is subsidizing the additional $27 per person.]
Want a bagel from a snack stand? Be prepared to shell out $6. Add a coffee? $4.50. $13.50 will get you a burger, or two hot dogs, or wings. Big spenders might spring for the $18 cheesesteak, with another $9 for a 20-ounce soda. A side of fries? $7.50. Domestic bottle of beer? $12.
[Update: Kay also said that NYRA hopes/expects another concessionaire to be in place for all Aqueduct food/beverage within a few months.]
Assuming that the prices at the bar in Longshots are comparable, if you’re a NYRA Rewards customer, you’re spending $25 to walk in the door, and that’s before you wager a cent.
Longshots replaces the Sunny Jim Room on Aqueduct’s main floor, a cool space tucked away on the west side of the clubhouse. Light streams in its south-facing windows, and though the decor and amenities are outdated, the room is cozy, warm, and comfortable. I loved looking at the wonderful old pictures that graced the walls, including one of August Belmont and Sam Hildreth, dated 1904. It now hangs outside the room, in an area that you are unlikely to walk past, but do seek it out. It’s remarkable.
Fittingly, a photo of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Allen Jerkens used to hang inside, too; like all the other photographs, it’s been removed, and last weekend, no one could tell me where it had gone. Nor could anyone tell me what will become of the Sunny Jim Room.
Let’s just hope that Genting doesn’t get its hands on either of them.