Harry Payne Whitney: Like Father, Like Son
New York racing, much like the city itself, never sleeps. As soon as Belmont closes its doors for the winter, Aqueduct opens its gates, picking up right where Belmont Park left off. Known as “The Big A,” Aqueduct completes NYRA’s trio of racetracks and is the only one that can be operated during New York’s unforgiving winters.
I first visited Aqueduct just before Christmas last year. I was just starting to frequent live racing and hadn’t been to any racetrack since the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont two months earlier. When I entered the grandstand it was clear that Aqueduct is quite different from its sister tracks, but I was immediately charmed by its quirks. From then on, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Aqueduct. Here’s five reasons why you should love it too:
1. The Races
Aqueduct has one long race calendar, broken up into seasonal meets, that begins in early November and ends in early May. The calendar’s early highlights include the Grade 1 Cigar Mile and Grade 2 Remsen Stakes over Thanksgiving weekend, and the marquee events conclude with the Grade 1 Wood Memorial in April, which is a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
While many of the summer birds and their equine charges choose to winter at Florida’s Gulfstream Park, quality stakes races sprinkled throughout the Aqueduct meet during winter keep a great group of horses and trainers up north.
2. The Track
The reason Aqueduct is able to hold winter racing is that it features an inner dirt track with a special, winterized surface. I also love the paddock, which is large and sunken into the ground, providing an interesting view of the horses and their connections below. Since Aqueduct lacks a backyard area, everything is on the same side of the grandstand.
Every time I’ve been to Aqueduct there’s been a sizeable crowd, but it’s still easy to navigate the apron and grandstand areas. Most recently I attended this year’s Cigar Mile, which ran under a gorgeous pink sunset. Definitely one of the best days I’ve had at Aqueduct so far.
3. The History
While the connection between horse and track is not as storied as Saratoga’s, the likeness of Secretariat painted prominently on the side of Aqueduct’s grandstand is no coincidence. “Big Red” took his last steps on a racetrack in front of a crowd at Aqueduct in 1973 before being retired to Claiborne Farm.
Cigar, a champion I was fortunate enough to meet at the Kentucky Horse Park before he passed away in 2014, began his 16-race win streak with victories in an allowance race and the NYRA Mile (now the Cigar Mile) at Aqueduct in 1994. The track also hosted the second-ever Breeders Cup in 1985.
Aqueduct is proud of its champions, with photos of past Cigar Mile, Wood Memorial and Remsen winners gracing almost every wall.
4. The Casino
I’m not a gambler myself, but if you enjoy casinos Aqueduct is definitely for you. Resorts World Casino is large and new and boasts a wide array of slot machines, game tables and even a few restaurants. It was also New York City’s first legal casino.
5. The People
Finally, the people are by far my favorite thing about Aqueduct. Since The Big A’s meet is primarily run during the winter months when it’s often unpleasant to be outside watching live races, it tends to attract the “true fans” of racing. Whether it’s Wood Memorial day or a card full of maiden and allowance races, the atmosphere at Aqueduct is almost as exciting as Belmont Stakes day.
I’ve also found that the fans at Aqueduct are some of the friendliest I’ve met at any track, and many of them are willing to teach new fans the intricacies of the sport. On Wood Memorial day last year, I struck up a conversation with a man who told me about his time working on the backstretch exercising horses years ago. At Saturday’s Cigar Mile, I chatted with a fan in a Preakness hat who gave me some tips for attending next year’s Kentucky Derby.
I’ve brought a few friends to Aqueduct as their first racetrack experience, and despite some temperamental weather, they liked it enough to come back. I have to give the loyal fans of Aqueduct some credit for always making race days a good time.
Congratulations to Connect on winning the 2016 Cigar Mile, and here’s to another great winter at Aqueduct!