03/05/2014 2:17PM

NYRA board critical of Aqueduct experience

Barbara D. Livingston
Aqueduct is "dirty" and "dangerous," according to Len Riggio, the owner of Gotham Stakes winner Samraat and a member of the New York Racing Association's Reorganization Board.

NEW YORK – Ultimately, Len Riggio’s experience last Saturday at Aqueduct was an enjoyable one, as he wound up standing in the winner’s circle after his 3-year-old homebred Samraat won the Grade 3, $500,000 Gotham Stakes to remain undefeated.

Up until that race, however, Riggio – an owner, breeder, and member of the New York Racing Association’s Reorganization Board – and his guests were not enjoying their experience in the Equestris dining room at Aqueduct.

“The food was terrible, no waiters, no help – our experience was pretty sad,” Riggio said.

Riggio, who called Aqueduct an “eyesore,” also said this about the track: “It’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it’s just really not good.”

Aqueduct – its present and future – was a major topic at Wednesday’s 90-minute meeting of NYRA’s Reorganization Board in Manhattan. By April 2015, the board must submit to state officials a long-term plan for New York racing, and the future of Aqueduct is a key component in that plan.

“I would think that our charter would be to provide recommendations for what should happen” to Aqueduct, NYRA President and Chief Executive Chris Kay said after the meeting. “It’s going to be decided, obviously, in Albany.”

Last October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a meeting with the New York Daily News editorial board, called Aqueduct “a waste” and said the state should investigate other uses for the property. To date, that has not happened, according to Kay and David Skorton, NYRA’s chairman.

Aqueduct has come under fire recently for several reasons. A sexual assault that occurred in a restroom on Super Bowl Sunday and the theft of some trophies and computers a few weeks ago were subjects Kay would not discuss because criminal investigations are involved. Kay apologized for the continued presence of birds in the clubhouse and dining areas and said, “We have taken aggressive steps” to remove them.

In response to complaints about the cleanliness of Aqueduct, NYRA has taken back the cleaning operations of its side of the track from Genting, the company that runs the thriving Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct. NYRA also is taking over the food services, having issued a request for proposal for a company to take over that area. Changes in that area likely will not be seen until the fall meet.

“I’ve worked in some of the finest places for guest experience in the world, and I’ve been around the world, so nobody needs to say, ‘Well, have you’ve seen this issue at Aqueduct?’ ” Kay said. “It takes time.”

NYRA conducts racing at Aqueduct six months of the year, and as board member Barry Ostrager noted, “Aqueduct has historically been a profitable meet for NYRA.”

Aqueduct, as well as Belmont and Saratoga, will be in line for some capital improvements. The major improvement at Aqueduct will be the opening of Longshots, a new simulcast facility that will double as a sports bar. NYRA is hoping to open Longshots in time for the Wood Memorial on April 5, four weeks before the meet ends.

At Belmont Park, the grandstand will be closed, and the price of clubhouse admission will be $5, the same as last year. Previously, grandstand admission was $3.

Belmont will be getting 131 new high-definition television sets, a new paddock concession stand for this fall, and a new video board measuring 8 feet by 15 feet.

Kay said it would be another three weeks before pricing for the Belmont Stakes would be announced.

At Saratoga, prices are expected to rise from $3 to $5 for grandstand admission and from $5 to $8 for clubhouse admission. Kay said preliminary online market research done by the firm Integrated Insight supported these price increases approved by the board at the December meeting.

At Saratoga, NYRA will install 750 new HD televisions – 500 in the backyard – as well as three new large video walls and add 125 picnic tables.

It remains unclear when NYRA will release the stakes schedule for Saratoga, which opens July 18.

In other items discussed at the meeting:

◗ NYRA had an operating loss from racing operations totaling $12.3 million in 2013, an increase in loss of $6.8 million when compared with 2012. Part of that was due to a $3 million settlement for New York Off-Track Betting as well as lower revenue due to six fewer racing days and generally smaller field sizes.

When revenue from Aqueduct’s VLT casino was factored in, NYRA’s net income was $42.8 million, an increase of $17.3 million from 2012. NYRA earned approximately $110.2 million in VLT revenue, $55.2 million of which went to purses, $31.4 million for capital expenditures, and $23.6 million for operations.

◗ NYRA has a $200,000 sponsorship deal with a company Kay would not identify for the $1 million Wood Memorial. Genting had previously sponsored the Wood Memorial.

◗ NYRA is investing $4.5 million to build dormitories for backstretch help at Belmont Park by early 2015.