A renovated inner turf course, increased overnight purses, and a somewhat-bolstered stakes program highlight the changes as Aqueduct opens Friday for its fall meet.
One year after the New York Racing Association replaced the inner dirt track with a new turf course, the older turf course – now referred to as the inner turf course – underwent its first significant renovation since the mid-1970s. In May, new Kentucky bluegrass sod was installed along with a new sand drainage layer and an improved irrigation system.
“The old one hadn’t been touched in so long, when we dug it up, most of it was clay underneath, which explained why it didn’t drain very well,” said Martin Panza, NYRA senior vice president of racing operations. “So, it was time to go in and put the proper drainage in and get the proper growing medium in.”
Panza said that weather permitting he hopes to run two races a day over each course and perhaps add a third race over one of the courses on days when there are 10 races.
“We have to have the weather cooperate,” Panza said. “I’m not looking to run on yielding courses every day and tear the hell out of it.”
At Belmont, rain forced 64 turf races to be run on dirt. Unfortunately, there is a 90 percent chance of rain on Friday, which could linger into Saturday morning.
Panza said purses at this fall’s Aqueduct meet are higher than last fall. A New York-bred maiden race is $62,000, compared with $55,000 in 2017. An open maiden race is $70,000, a $10,000 increase from a year ago. Open-company allowance races have had their purses increased $8,000 to $13,000 depending on the condition.
Horses who have qualified under the starter loyalty program will be running for even more money depending on their level. The program began last April and will run through April 1. Depending on the number of starts a horse has made along the way, it could be running for anywhere from 5 percent more purse money to 15 percent.
Panza said NYRA has paid out close to $400,000 in additional money since the program began, including $47,185 on the Oct. 20 Empire Showcase Day card at Belmont Park. Forty of the 89 horses who participated on that card raced for additional purse money.
“Certainly, we hope the loyalty program continues to pay some dividends,” Panza said. “The more horses run, the more we’re going to reward people.”
Aqueduct will host 35 stakes worth $5.925 million from Friday through Dec. 31, an increase of $750,000 from the 2017 fall meet. Saturday’s Grade 3, $150,000 Turnback the Alarm Handicap was moved from Belmont’s closing-day weekend. The Grade 3 Long Island Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 3/8 miles on turf had its purse doubled to $400,000 and was moved back three weeks to Nov. 24.
There are four new turf stakes for 2-year-olds: the Atlantic Beach at six furlongs on Nov. 10, the Stewart Manor for fillies at six furlongs on Nov. 11, the Central Park at 1 1/16 miles on Nov. 22, and the Tepin for fillies on Nov. 25.
The Grade 1, $750,000 Cigar Mile tops a four-stakes program on Dec. 1 that includes the Remsen and Demoiselle for 2-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles and the Go for Wand for fillies and mares at one mile.
Traditionally run the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Cigar Mile program was pushed back a week in 2017 to give horses who ran in the Breeders’ Cup a better opportunity to run back. Last year, seven horses who ran on Breeders’ Cup weekend at Del Mar came back to run in those stakes at Aqueduct. The top four finishers in the Cigar Mile – Sharp Azteca, Mind Your Biscuits, Practical Joke, and Americanize – all had run four weeks earlier at Del Mar. Catholic Boy, the Remsen winner, and Wonder Gadot, the Demoiselle winner, both ran at Del Mar in juvenile stakes.
“We were very pleased with how that worked last year,” Panza said.
Racing will be conducted five days a week in November before being cut back to four days in December, a schedule that likely will last for three months.
First post generally will be 12:20 p.m. Eastern, but there are several exceptions, beginning with Friday’s opening-day card (12:15 p.m.) and Saturday (11 a.m.). Both days, fans ontrack will be able to wager on the Breeders’ Cup from Churchill Downs via simulcast.
On Thanksgiving (Nov. 22) and the two subsequent cards, first post will be 11:50 a.m. On Dec. 1, Cigar Mile Day, first post will be 11:30 a.m.