New murals are one of few recent changes at Aqueduct. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
People often lament the disappearance of the “old New York.” Longtime haunts and historic hangouts replaced by Citibanks and Red Lobsters, and with them, some say a way of life was replaced as well. Many of those modern-day champions of the old New York should come visit Aqueduct.
Aqueduct, the only racetrack in the city limits of New York City, opened its doors to the public in 1894 and has been a Queens landmark ever since. It really hit its high-water mark in 1965, when more than 73,000 people came to Aqueduct to watch the Met Mile. It was the largest crowd at a horse race in New York history at that time, and remains the largest crowd ever at Aqueduct to watch horses. (It was eclipsed only by the 75,000 who came in 1995 to see the Pope.)
Through the years, Aqueduct has struggled in the shadow of its older sibling, Belmont Park. Belmont has always been thought of as more of an upscale destination, and Aqueduct decidedly more working class. The division may be more about hardcore gamblers versus casual race fans. Belmont’s calendar covers the warmer months and Aqueduct serves the winter, usually November through April. This allows New York to have year-round racing, but means that Belmont gets the picnic-blanket crowds while Aqueduct gets the huddled masses yearning for the action.
At one point, the state on New York considered closing Aqueduct and moving the races and barns to Belmont Park, transforming that track into a year-round facility and adding a casino. Those plans were scrapped in favor of developing a casino at Aqueduct, which opened its doors in 2011. The casino kept Aqueduct in operation, but it hasn’t done much to change the character of the track. Aside from some very cool murals commissioned around the track, the grounds are still pretty much the same as they’ve always been. The casino is technically attached to the track, but they couldn’t be any less similar. The casino has carpet, it smells like air freshener, there is music playing and ads for big-name entertainment. But the biggest difference is there are busloads of customers filing in and out of the casino all day and night. Most patrons of the casino barely seem to know there’s a track attached at all.
YOUNG PEOPLE AT AQUEDUCT ON WOOD MEMORIAL DAY
During the 2014 Wood Memorial card, I witnessed a crowd of well-dressed young women in big hats, no doubt college students looking to take in a day at the track, hopelessly lost in the casino and screaming in to iPhones that they had no idea how to find the grandstand.
Casino patrons probably had no idea that another major difference between the casino and the track was the action. Most of the one-armed-bandits in the casino promised jackpots of no bigger than $10,000 - a number that might dazzle the slot player as they pump money in the machine but was unlikely to hit more than once or twice in a year. This was probably the cause for the wave of attacks on slot machines in the casino in their first year of operation. Customers frustrated with their bad luck were repeatedly taking it out on the slots with their fists.
On Wood Memorial day at the racetrack, there was a trifecta on the track that paid $26,000 for a $2 bet and several races saw exotic bets paying off in the thousands of dollars.
The ambiance in the racetrack might be less spiffy than the casino, but the action is a lot more turbo-charged.
WOOD MEMORIAL RICH IN HISTORY
The second-to-last Grade 1 race of the Aqueduct meet, the Wood Memorial Stakes, is a major prep for the Kentucky Derby, and as such usually draws a stellar field of horses. On a far wall at the track, there is a display of the photos of every winner in Wood history. A survey of that wall is a study in horse racing royal history. From Gallant Fox, the second U.S. Triple Crown winner, who won the Wood in 1930, to Seattle Slew who in 1977 won the Wood on the way to his record undefeated trip through the Triple Crown races. Eleven winners of the Wood Memorial went on to win the Kentucky Derby, and an astonishing four of them went on to win the Triple Crown. The mighty Secretariat was not one of them, however. He finished third in the 1973 Wood.
The last Wood winner to take the Kentucky Derby was Fusachi Pegasus in 2000, though 2009 winner I Want Revenge was scratched on the morning of the Kentucky Derby as the morning-line favorite.
WICKED STRONG WINS THE 2014 WOOD MEMORIAL
Saturday, there was a lot of fuss being made about a horse that many had hoped had the potential to win the Kentucky Derby - including one Saudi businessman who reportedly offered the horse’s owner $8 million for a 51% share - named Social Inclusion, who had never run in a stakes race in his life, let alone a Grade 1, million-dollar race like the Wood.
Social Inclusion was the betting favorite due to lots of buzz after his dominating victory over Kentucky Derby hopeful Honor Code in an allowance race. Every year there’s a horse that people hope is a freak who will thoroughly dominate the 3-year-old crop and romp to a Triple Crown. Every year those hopes are disappointed. This year would be no different, with Social Inclusion crossing the wire in third place behind victor Wicked Strong.
For anyone who laments the loss of “old New York,” just take a walk around Aqueduct during a running of the Wood Memorial.
At Champ’s Sports Bar this year, there was a lively crowd of imbibers and long lines at the betting machines. The tables were all pushed together and a gathering of several generations of horseplayers huddled around boxes of Villabate Alba cannoli and six-packs of Dr. Brown’s sodas.
WOOD MEMORIAL DAY ATTRACTS VARIETY OF PEOPLE
Upstairs on the top floor at Equestris, the linen-tablecloth restaurant with a $65 buffet, the men wore coats and ties and the women dress in high heels. There were children in tiny, brass-buttoned blazers carrying racing programs. An art gallery sold canvas paintings of racing-inspired scenes for thousands of dollars a clip.
Outside in the grandstand, there was a veritable United Nations of ethnicities, each shouting at the horses coming down the stretch in their own native tongue. But between races, the same people jawwed at one another in English, with thick Queens and Brooklyn accents, at least for the 20 minutes before post time completely assimilated into a single culture - that of the New York City working-class punter. Arguing about jockeys, about track condition, about how to bet the race; the grandstand is one of the few places in New York City where people lay down their differences.
I saw a couple from Manhattan, clearly their first trip to Aqueduct (at least in a long time, they were marveling at the casino), start an argument with a Philipino man they asked to extinguish his cigarette. The argument finished with a comparison of notes on which of the two rivals from the Gotham Stakes would have the better trip in the Wood Memorial. That’s just how it goes at the track.
RACEGOERS UNITE AT AQUEDUCT
Race fans are like a lost tribe, so sure they are the last of their kind, who only find one another in the grandstands and are able to recognize a bit of themselves in each other.
At least at this racetrack, that recognition is about more than just a love of this “Sport of Kings”. It is a recognition of a decaying way of life, an appreciation of a simpler time. A time before Citibanks and Red Lobsters and loud, perfumed casinos, when things like a Sunday matinee on Broadway, a game of cards at the club, or a day at the races were all common dates on the weekend calendar. When Damon Runyon’s tales from Mendy’s entertained commuters reading the papers on the way to work. It is a recognition of a New York in decline but not completely forgotten — the old New York.
New York took its nickname, the Big Apple, from a horse racing column in the New York Telegraph. The sport is an indisputable part of the modern history of the greatest city in the world. The attendance might be down, but the sport isn’t dead. You can still catch world-class live racing year-round.
At the Wood Memorial, you might catch a horse on his way to the Triple Crown. And at Belmont, you might catch him making history in the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
Here in Queens, on those chilly winter afternoons, the locals aren’t ready to surrender the old New York. While the wealthy might now have Broadway, the rest of us still have Aqueduct.