I've always been an advocate of going out and supporting the live racing product even if that involves venturing out to Ozone Park, N.Y., to bet the inner track in the beginning of January. There's no reason why racing fans of all levels can't leave the warm confines of their home and abandon computer wagering for just one afternoon to socialize with real racing fans face-to-face, and perhaps revitalize some the past glorious social aspects of being on track.
That's what my annual New Years' Day trip to Aqueduct is all about – to meet and socialize with past Daily Racing Form friends and colleagues and start 2014 off by betting some hardcore winter racing from around the country. It may not be Gulfstream or Santa Anita, but it's our local Thoroughbred venue this time of year, and we were all ready to embrace and support new NYRA president Christopher Kay's establishment. More importantly, it's a time to turn off the cellphone, shut down the Twitter and Facebook account, and catch up “old school” style without technical distraction.
Fortunately, for most of the gang in my inner circle, we're all old enough now that New Year's Eve hangovers are no longer an issue. For better or worse, we were all bright-eyed and refreshed for the 12:25 p.m. New Year's post – while in years past at noonish we'd likely had just settled into a deep sleep from the night before after tearing up the town bar hopping in the city or going shot for shot at a friend's local holiday bash.
Not us veteran old-timers. We were delighted to stand in line with our green NYRA voucher to fetch our $2 calendar filled with beautiful photography from New York's best racing highlights of 2013. As I waited for the Aqueduct scratches, I quickly scanned my calendar and briefly relived the exciting stretch victories of Close Hatches, Point Of Entry, Palace Malice, Princess of Sylmar, Verrazano, and of course horse of the year Wise Dan. All the champions touched the NYRA circuit at some point during 2013, and were represented exquisitely in what was no doubt the best $2 investment we would make all afternoon.
My small New Year's Day betting circle of friends arrived one by one prior to post as we settled into Aqueduct's Champs Sport Bar on the second floor. We could have gotten a table in the upscale Equestris restaurant, but not us blue-collar types. We decided we'd continue to rough it with the regular crowd at Champs. Most of us were out of breath after walking a quarter mile to get to the track. Parking was sparse this holiday afternoon, and as one intelligent business owner and active gambler once pondered to me a long time ago … why is it that the racetrack is the only business in the world where the customers (paying patrons) have to park further away than the employers?
Although I wasn't surprised, most of Champs looked almost identical to last year's gathering. Most of the TV monitors had survived another year but had yet to get a transformation to flat-screen status. There were fewer tables to sit at, and the chairs that did exist looked like they had lost the battle with my neighbor's Siberian Husky over the stuffing in the cushion.
If you weren't lucky enough to arrive 40 minutes to post time, you had to wrestle with the locals for the few staggering plastic brown chairs that looked like they had been bought at auction after one of the local elementary schools shut down in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. There was no waitress service and no food. The spicy hot wings and Reuben sandwich I'd dreamt about coming over the Whitestone Bridge would have to wait for another day.
After a few races had passed my gang of four decided to treat ourselves to a New Year celebratory cocktail. It was then we discovered the birth of the $9 NYRA Heineken. A round of drinks that consisted of two Heinekens, one Coors light and a Rum and Coke came back a whopping $37. And it took about 11 minutes to get these drinks as the bartender scolded someone on her cellphone while waiting on me.
On a brighter note, there were new SAM machines in place and they seemed to be easy to maneuver, bettor-friendly and reliable.
The day was filled with some good laughs, a few winning tickets and a lot less rounds of cocktails than we had anticipated. After the last simulcast race at Gulfstream concluded we said our goodbyes to an afternoon of typical winter NYRA racing—a three-horse field in the opener and $99 winner named Tatoo Me in race 6.
Before taking the long trek back to my car, I decided to stop next door to take a brief look at Resorts World Casino. The relatively new monstrosity of a casino that generated a whopping $630 million in its first year of existence in 2012 sits only a couple hundred yards from Champs, but it might as well be as far away as China based on the décor and overall atmosphere. The Christmas tree that sits in the entrance of the casino could easily match the size and beauty of the one situated in Rockefeller Plaza. The holiday decorations are simply breathtaking. Resorts World is new, clean, inviting and filled with patrons. It's thriving.
Although racing bettors and patrons continually debate how to save racing and the benefits and harm of continuous racino birth and reconstruction. The question is simple. Would a basic facelift to racetrack really break the bank? Perhaps throwing a couple bucks towards some new seats and a new coat of paint. Or some new screens so you can watch a race without wondering what number or horse finished where? Or, maybe a betting venue where you can enjoy a reasonable lunch without breaking the bank?
Why is it that our Aqueduct experience seems to be the norm from track to track and city to city? Will it ever change?
To be fair some places have. Although I've yet to visit the new Meadowlands, I've heard some positive things about their new building and improved racing product. They're making an effort while so many tracks still seem to be reluctant to embrace any positive change for the racing fan and day-to-day player. It starts with simple changes.
As of today, there's roughly 361 days until the annual 2014 Aqueduct Champs gathering. And yes … God willing … my hardcore gang of racetrack diehards will be out to support our local venue once again. Perhaps we'll cash a ticket or two, have some old laughs, and maybe even have the privilege of tasting one of those famous $9 Heinekens.
Dean Keppler is the former Director of DRF Press for Daily Racing Form, where he orchestrated the organizing and creation of over 45 horse racing titles during his eight-year tenure. He has over 30 years' experience handicapping both Harness and Thoroughbreds. Keppler has authored several articles and books including Trainer Angles and Betting the Kentucky Derby. His third book Form Reversal: Increasing Profits Using Formulator and Cutting-Edge Trainer Stats, is scheduled for an early spring 2014 release. Keppler's work has appeared in The Saratoga Special, Horseplayer Magazine, Today's Racing Digest, The New York Times and Forbes magazine.
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