Racing at Aqueduct

NEW YORK -- Thirty minutes before the first race on an unseasonably warm autumn Saturday during which four graded stakes including the season's final Grade 1 will be run at Aqueduct, traffic, at a standstill inside the entry gates and gridlocked on the adjacent streets, is stretched beyond vision in two directions and a subway train disgorges a stream of people that seems to have no end. Another train will arrive shortly in the all-day shuttle that begins in the extreme north of Manhattan and ends here in the early hours of morning, a new contributor to the municipal insomnia that is the pulse of the nation's most densely populated city.

To those familiar with Aqueduct, it is still difficult to imagine the place as a destination except for recent parolees. What glitters and bustles now was not long ago a dank, neglected monument to another era, a ghost covered in pigeon waste wedged between Kennedy International Airport and South Ozone Park, a neighborhood of wise-guy mini-mansions and modest homes with postage-stamp lawns adorned by Madonnas on halfshells. Once, this was the racetrack of the future. Before the transformation that beckons enthusiastic gamblers from the five boroughs and Long Island, Aqueduct was, put simply, a dump, home to rats with attitudes and the kind of horseplayer who, despite their scant numbers, lent a Star Wars Cantina flavor to the place.

This is not your father's Big A. This is what happens when you build a first-class casino in the midst of a city with a population of 8.2 million.

The gathered horseplayers in the clubhouse who await the first race on the other side of the looking glass do not suggest that a growing gaggle of gamblers encircles the building and has filled a new parking garage before the day's first post parade is led onto the racetrack. The parking lots still designated for use by racing fans, horsemen and the employees of the New York Racing Association are full. A good card, the last of the season in New York, and unseasonably warm weather have conspired to draw a fairly substantial crowd to the races two days after Thanksgiving, but the majority of those who inch their way toward the still-unoccupied parking spaces at Aqueduct have other interests.

Inside the recently opened Resorts World Casino New York City, seats at electronic table games -- roulette, baccarat and craps -- are filled to capacity at 11 a.m. and people await vacancies. Standard video-lottery terminals are being claimed by determined players who enter the building in a steady stream, pass beneath a three-story crystal chandelier and ride wide escalators into a glittering expanse that unlike other such enterprises has thoughtfully integrated electronic gaming and racing.

This is not your father's Big A. This is what happens when you build a first-class casino in the midst of a city with a population of 8.2 million. Life has returned to Aqueduct.

When complete, Resorts World will be the nation's largest gaming enterprise situated at a thoroughbred racetrack and the volume of business in the first months of limited operation -- some 50 percent greater than original estimates -- will, in addition to the financial benefits that will accrue to the state, city, Genting International, the casino operator, and the NYRA, which will at last be able to repair and renew the racing end of Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga, make possible a level and depth of racing competition unimagined in any of the largest and most important of American racing markets.

While the latest generation of gaming machines was fed on Saturday, some of the most important races run during the late autumn in New York were being decided. None of these races will influence the current divisional championship campaigns, but 2-year-olds capable of winning at 9 furlongs in the fall are generally serious animals who will return in the spring.

Disposablepleasure's rally from far behind the pace, made necessary by a stumbling start that ended in a narrow victory in the $200,000 Demoiselle Stakes, suggest that she is a filly with a bright future uncomplicated by distance limitations. "You don't see many 2-year-old fillies do that," trainer Todd Pletcher said. You don't see many horses of any age or either sex do that.

The $200,000 Remsen Stakes was the second win at 9 furlongs for O'Prado Again, another who appears unfettered by distance limitations. Barring the unforeseen, trainer Dale Romans will have this colt embroiled in the Derby chase next spring. "We think he is a Kentucky Derby horse," Romans said, "so we'll treat him like that."

Last year's Remsen winner, To Honor and Serve, turned out to be a cut below top class and both his victories at age three had come in 9-furlong races of no consequence. His presence in the Grade 1, $250,000 Cigar Mile was a bit of a surprise considering the sharper distance and a poor effort when he finished seventh in the 10-furlong Breeders' Cup Classic. To Honor and Serve had not won a mile race since taking the Nashua Stakes over this track more than a year ago and the handful of Breeders' Cup competitors who have raced since Nov. 5 have fared poorly. But To Honor and Serve, raging with run leaving the quarter pole, overcame the recent trend despite the burden of being cast in the role of even-money favorite and won the Cigar Mile with aplomb. Trainer Bill Mott said afterward that a Grade 1 victory over older horses should merit serious consideration for To Honor and Serve as the season's champion 3-year-old. Why not? Everyone else comes up in that conversation?

The 3-year-old filly Awesome Feather was the cherry on the sundae that was the final big racing day of 2011 in New York, the symbolic end of the era in which purses are not ballooned by gaming revenue and the beginning of another during which six-figure purses will be commonplace on weekdays.

She had raced only once since winning the 2010 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs and securing a divisional championship, that in an overnight stakes at Belmont Park a month before Breeders' Cup Day. But she stepped directly into Grade 1 company in the 9-furlong, $250,000 Gazelle Stakes, an unmistakable statement of confidence by trainer Chad Brown.

She won the Gazelle with unquestioned authority and is now undefeated in eight career starts. She left the impression that had she not missed most of her 3-year-old season with a tendon injury, Awesome Feather's profile would be much higher than it is at the moment. She has never been worse than second at the eighth pole and only once finished with another filly within two lengths at the wire. She is the kind who dominates a field and at the same time leaves the impression that there is much she has yet to reveal and had fortune smiled upon this filly she may by now have been a superstar.

"You just never know going to race speed, with everything she has been through, what's going to happen," Brown said. "But with the way she's training, it doesn't surprise me she's capable of uncorking a run like that. She's so sharp and strong in the morning -- she's a super talented horse.

"We've just been taking it day-by-day with her. As long as she's 100 percent healthy, we'll probably see her in the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream [January 28]. That would be the plan. We're going to see how she is first, but if she's okay, that's where I'd go."

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 also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.