New York racing's long winter

The post-Breeders' Cup plan was to allow the Aqueduct meeting to proceed while watching from afar or if not exactly afar, then far enough to avoid the Belt Parkway at rush hour for as long as possible. So far, the plan is working.

There are several distinct elements in the construction of the racing calendar in New York -- the meeting at Belmont that occupies the spring and early summer and is the stage for the often dramatic conclusion of the Triple Crown; Saratoga, which is simply the best race meeting run anywhere, and the Fall Championship Meeting, also at Belmont and host to several historically important races, once season-ending objectives of top-class horses now vehicles employed by trainers to move the best and the fastest closer to the Breeders' Cup. Then, the inevitable payback -- six months at Aqueduct.

Once inside, Aqueduct is not a bad place to go to the races, compensating with utility what it lacks in charm. It is an urban racetrack on a subway line and one of the worst roads in a city of traffic strangles and potholes. The airplanes flying low on the approach to the adjacent Kennedy International Airport can be distracting, even disconcerting, and the place is often shrouded in fog. On a typical winter afternoon, the crowd gathered on the second floor of the clubhouse looks like Queens Central Booking on a Friday night.

There are seats in the grandstand that have not been occupied by a human since the 1985 Breeders' Cup, places in the building left dark and walled off to what little public remains. All this contributes to the Aqueduct mindset -- a bad mood that will not lighten until springtime, when the turf course is again green and the snow fences are taken down.

Good races are yet to be run in Queens, New York. Two days after Thanksgiving there will be good reason to brave the Belt Parkway. The Remsen and Demoiselle, both Grade 2 stakes that have been won in the past by progressive juveniles moving forward too late for the Breeders' Cup who are attempting nine furlongs for the first time, are both fertile places in which to find a Derby horse or one of the leading 3-year-old fillies in the season ahead. The winners of these races merit attention when the toll booths open on the road to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks.

Midnight Lute, winner of the Breeders' Cup Sprint, is expected for the Cigar Mile, which is the last Grade 1 race of the year in New York and the main attraction of the Thanksgiving weekend. Watching Midnight Lute run is a treat.

On the following Wednesday, racing in New York moves to the inner track at Aqueduct -- not a treat for most people, though a period embraced by some horseplayers who find winter racing agreeable from a pure gambling perspective.

It will be an interesting winter in New York and a critical winter. The winds of change may reach gale force or amount to no more than a healing breeze. The only certainty is that things will be very different in New York by springtime.

Either the politicians who hold sport's future in uncertain hands will somehow fashion a sensible plan for the conduct of racing beyond December 31, when the franchise held for 55 years by the New York Racing Association expires, or racing comes to a grinding halt, an alternative so chilling that is somehow perfect in the middle of an Aqueduct winter.

The rhetoric is deafening, sometimes astonishing and frequently contradictory. The sport, its practitioners and patrons are prisoner to the process.

The positions of the two figures central to this drama -- Gov. Eliot Spitzer, whose plan is to award the franchise to NYRA for 30 years in return for concessions on the dicey question of real estate ownership, and Joe Bruno, the Republican Majority Leader of the State Senate, who has been openly acrimonious with Spitzer, has put forward a plan to create an entirely new bureaucracy to oversee the sport while awarding franchises to three different entities that would operate the tracks.

In lieu of a sensible plan -- a very real possibility -- or a compromise that comes close, the alternative scenario is chaos. Charles Hayward, president of NYRA, has threatened to close Aqueduct at the end of business on New Year's Eve, standing behind core issue, the question of real estate ownership in Elmont, Queens and Saratoga Springs and returning to the now familiar bosom of the bankruptcy court for a decision that the state, which claims ownership, may not win. Hayward would not have rattled his sword without support of the board of trustees, who appear committed to a game of hardball if things go badly in the state legislature.

In the end, whatever and whenever that may be, there will be part of Aqueduct that will become a casino, or racino in the current lexicon, with too much neon and 4,500 video lottery terminals that will relieve people of money that they have not yet paid in taxes. This, at day's end, is the at the heart this process, something that has almost nothing to do with racing other than providing money for purses and breeder awards. The biggest story in racing is about slot machines. Sad.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also be given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.