OZONE PARK, N.Y. -- Aqueduct's main track, often hailed as one of the safest surfaces in America, has problems. And with the New York Racing Association in dire straits financially, the problems are not readily correctible.
Though it was 68 degrees and sunny on Thursday, Aqueduct was forced to cancel its live racing card because of an uneven racing surface caused by heavy rains Wednesday. It was the third cancellation in the first 12 cards of the fall meet. One of those previous cancellations was due to high winds.
Thursday's cancellation underscores serious concerns over the condition of Aqueduct's main track. John Passero, the director of racing surfaces for the NYRA, said the fact the main track is clay-based creates problems, especially when the surface gets wet. More than 2 1/2 inches of rain fell during Wednesday's card, which was run in its entirety.
"The cushion needs to stay together and stay in place, and it just will not," Passero said. "When the rain gets into it, it starts to - and the word I'll use for you is - deteriorate."
Passero said over the years that the clay base has migrated into the cushion, "and it's changed the properties and the way it reacts. It's all in the way it reacts," he said. "I think this is a huge issue. The material has to be the type of material that will hold together when it's wet, and this does not hold together. That's the bottom line."
Passero estimates it would cost $3 million to tear up the main track and put in a limestone-based surface. Aqueduct's inner track, which opens for racing Nov. 29, has a limestone base. Passero also estimates it would cost $12 million to replace the main track with a synthetic surface.
Passero told NYRA officials last year about potential problems with the main track. Bill Nader, NYRA senior vice-president, said officials heeded those warnings, but are hamstrung to make any changes, given NYRA's inability to get its slot-machine parlor going. Last week, the NYRA filed for bankruptcy.
"Without that (slot) revenue stream here, we are in Chapter 11 protection, and he's talking about overhauling the track," Nader said. "Right now, it's up to him and his staff to really keep the track in the best possible condition and hope we don't get hit with 3 1/2 inches of rain."
Nader mentioned that NYRA has limited the number of racing dates on the main track. Next year, the main track is not likely to open until April 4, meaning there will be only 19 racing days on the main track. This fall, there were 25 scheduled cards on the main track.
Trainer Rick Violette, who is based at Aqueduct, said he simply jogged his horses Thursday morning over the wet surface. In general, though, Violette said he has been happy with the condition of the main track.
"It's been a very good racetrack all summer," he said. "It's been good since we reopened. I've always considered it one of our better racetracks."