Kentucky might have the PR advantage when it comes to Thoroughbred racing in the United States, but the Empire State has long been a stronghold of the sport. Home to the Belmont, the third jewel of the Triple Crown, as well as several other tracks and breeding operations, New York State is a Thoroughbred racing powerhouse.
It rivals Florida as a cradle for highly-rated foals and California’s glitzy racing heritage. New York is often overlooked as a Thoroughbred tourist site and agricultural attraction since its upstate farms and grand summer racing season stand in the shadows of bustling Manhattan. Still, purses in the state total over a quarter of a billion dollars each year. Its rich history, major stakes races, and massive cultural contributions to the sport, financial and social, have helped make New York a vital artery to the American heart of Thoroughbred racing.
New York Horse Racing
This is where Triple Crown winners are welcomed to the finish line. Thanks to the stories of Damon Runyan and the romanticized image of big-city gamblers and hustlers he presented in the Prohibition era—later immortalized in the musical Guys and Dolls—New York is often associated with the smoke-filled, gambling side of Thoroughbred racing. Its quiet pastures and smaller racetracks, however, provide much more to the sport. In addition to its three major tracks (Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga), New York is also home to Finger Lakes Race Track in Farmington. Several complexes in the state host Standardbred harness racing and Thoroughbred offtrack betting.
The New York Racing Association, the NYRA, is a leader in the industry, and its policies and practices can often set standards for other horseracing organizations, particularly in the Northeast. The creation of the NYRA in 1954 helped to protect and promote the industry and likely saved New York from the total extinguishment of live racing.
New York’s breeding farms have placed colts and fillies, horses, and mares in winner’s circles worldwide. They are steadily represented in graded races. Forty-two registered stallions stand stud in New York, and over 2,000 farms, both commercial and family-owned, are scattered across every county in the state.
New York breds became the darling of the sport in 2003 when Funny Cide of Sackatoga Stable won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and again in 2020, when Tiz the Law finished first in a COVID 19-scrambled Belmont Stakes.
New York Gambling Laws
The breeding shed and the trackside of life in New York are only a small part of Thoroughbred racing’s contributions to the state. Half a billion dollars is produced every year in the state at the betting windows.
But it’s only fun if handicappers stay on the right side of the law. Depending on where Thoroughbred betting is taking place in the state, regulations range from the free and easy to highly restrictive. It’s best to read up on local laws before checking out the morning line. For example, minors—defined as those under the age of 18—may not gamble in New York. Bookmaking is also prohibited unless it takes place through a state-licensed association.
The New York State Gaming Commission has the final say on all gambling in the state and how racetracks and stakes are regulated. Gaming laws were lightest at racetracks and at casinos located on tribal lands until 2013 when an amendment to New York’s constitution was approved to allow wider latitude. Now that the Vegas lifestyle has crept into more state areas, interest in and handles on Thoroughbred racing has risen. Licensed betting and racing are not only permitted at the tracks but so is pari-mutuel betting at non-tribal facilities where live racing does not take place.
The state has several protections in place for the horses themselves to combat doping. Trainers and vets are strictly regulated when it comes to possession of hypodermic equipment, equine narcotics, and other drugs. Blood samples are taken from each horse before a race to detect illegal substances. Winners and at least one other randomly selected entrant are re-tested after the race.
History of New York Horse Racing
The history of American Thoroughbred racing runs directly through New York. The first recorded racing event in the colonies took place in 1665 in Newmarket, an area now outside Queens. And this wasn’t a covert, lowbrow distraction arranged by underground forces, either: New York Province governor Richard Nichols organized it. Small, local tracks sprang up as the immigration to the state increased. Private tracks on large estates began to appear, and British troops built a track in Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War.
Thoroughbred racing’s association with British culture meant that the sport was almost entirely banned in the state for nearly two decades after the end of the Revolution. However, the habit was too ingrained to drop altogether, and New York City became a showcase of racing as the wealth of the new nation increased. Extravagant stables appeared in Harlem. Union Course, Brighton Beach Race Course near Coney Island, and Sheepshead Bay Race Track were home to lavish customers such as the Vanderbilt family. New American money copied the tradition of early wealthy British settlers, and many financial leaders owned stables or even their own tracks.
Although the national decline in Thoroughbred racing handles impacted New York race tracks and many shuttered in the late 20th century, it was once the sport’s glamorous American capital. The state’s early grip on Thoroughbred racing has kept it afloat even during economic downturns, particularly at its three most famous tracks: Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga.
Best New York Horse Racing Tracks
The New York Racing Association runs the state’s best-known tracks. Between the three, racing takes place year-round
Aqueduct Race Track
Aqueduct, although opened in 1894, is a relative newcomer to New York racing history. It’s the only race track located within the limits of New York City and acquired its name due to its location near the former Ridgewood Aqueduct. It boasts three separate courses—one dirt as well as two turfs. As many as 40,000 fans can attend live racing at once, with seating for up to 17,000. The NYRA is headquartered here. Aqueduct, also known as “The Big A,” is home to the Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes and Cigar Mile Handicap and several other major graded races.
Aqueduct’s reputation is that of “the people’s track,” with Belmont and Saratoga the domain of more upper-class gamblers. It hosts its own subway station. In the wake of a threatened closure in 2007, Aqueduct underwent a significant renovation. Resorts World New York City, the city’s first casino to operate legally, became part of the Aqueduct landscape in 2011. Here, gamblers participate in video gaming, blackjack, roulette, and other Vegas-style offerings.
Superhorse Cigar notched his first win here in 1994, and the Belmont Stakes were run at Aqueduct in the mid-1960s as Belmont rebuilt its grandstand. The great Secretariat paraded publicly for the last time at Aqueduct in 1973.
Belmont Race Track
Belmont Race Track is home to several Grade 1 races, not the least of which is the Belmont Stakes, the mile and a half “Test of the Champion.” Because of its status as the third jewel of the Triple Crown, some of the greatest Thoroughbreds America has ever produced have run at Belmont. Secretariat, Man o’ War, Rachel Alexandra, and even Seabiscuit have all run at this massive facility.
Located east of New York City in Elmont, even casual Thoroughbred racing fans are familiar with the Belmont opening with the strains of “New York, New York.” Its down-home nickname, “The Big Sandy,” belies its reputation as one of the nation’s most elite race tracks. Belmont is the great equalizer of many promising young Thoroughbreds with its enormous homestretch, deep surface, and sweeping turns.
Belmont’s roots stretch back to 1905. August Belmont Jr. and other investors financed the original Belmont race track. Its fan-friendly environs, which can accommodate over 100,000 people, were re-opened in 1968 as the most extensive racing capacity. Plans for modernization and further development at Belmont include a new hotel, an upscale shopping village, and a pending NHL arena.
Saratoga Race Track
Synonymous with the sophisticated, quainter days of Thoroughbred racing, Saratoga eclipses even Lexington’s Keeneland in grandeur and polish. The bacchanal of the infield at the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs doesn’t touch “the Spa,” stately and robed in decades of tradition.
Saratoga features three tracks, one of which functions as a steeplechase venue. Its attendee’s picnic on its grounds and its grandstand can seat about 50,000 fans.
Singular in its fame for its entire meet more than anyone race, Saratoga Race Track is located in Saratoga Springs, almost three hours north of Manhattan. Situated near the Vermont border, Saratoga opened in 1863 and, in some ways, has changed little since then. Home to more than one upset (Man O’War, American Pharoah, and even Secretariat all lost here), Saratoga’s snobbish reputation doesn’t spare even its entrants.
New York Horse Racing Season
New Yorkers enjoy the rare privilege of year-round live racing. As Thoroughbred racing struggles in the United States, it’s one of the few places in the nation to boast at least one open track throughout all four seasons.
Aqueduct is New York State’s winter home. Racing there takes place from late October or early November until December. Usually, a second winter meet runs from late December through mid-March/early April. COVID-19 restrictions, however, have impacted this calendar, and the 2020 meet will run without spectators.
In 2020, Belmont hosted live racing from June through mid-July. Belmont’s fall meet takes place from mid-September through early November.
Most famously, Saratoga’s meet usually runs from mid-July until Labor Day. Live racing takes place five days a week, and the Travers Stakes, the Woodward Stakes, and the Whitney Handicap, along with several other Grade 1 races, are scattered throughout the calendar.
There is no horse racing in America without New York’s contributions. Although the state can at times show the sport’s seedier sides, it also showcases the glitz and glamor of Thoroughbred racing’s financial high end. New York’s year-round contribution to horse racing, from the breeding shed to its busy gaming action to the year-round track itself, is immeasurable.