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Belmont Park Demolition, Reconstruction in Full Swing

Racing surfaces scheduled to be completed before the grandstand is finished in 2026.

Demolition work at Belmont Park

Demolition work at Belmont Park

Bob Ehalt

The future of New York racing has a stark look to it these days.

You can say, it's under construction.

When the opening phases of the demolition of the grandstand at Belmont Park began last week, it signaled that the process of rebuilding and redesigning a right-sized facility for the lone downstate home of the New York Racing Association circuit was operating on all cylinders.

"The transformation of Belmont is incredibly important to the future of racing downstate, and NYRA will deliver a facility that existing fans and the next generation will be proud to have in New York," said Dave O'Rourke, NYRA's president and CEO. "NYRA is the steward of this historic New York State property, and our goal as an organization is to create an open and accessible space that balances history while moving Belmont Park into the future."

Previously, NYRA had been working on the existing racing surfaces, constructing tunnels for passage into the infield, and creating the newest addition to the historic track, an all-weather Tapeta surface that will join the outermost main dirt track and two turf courses when Belmont Park is expected to re-open in 2026.

Visit Belmont Park today and the racing surfaces bear no reminders of the many historic equine battles that have been waged over them since 1905.

Basically, it's now the world's largest sandbox with a fleet of trucks, bulldozers, backhoes, and excavation machines in fulltime operation.

Gone is every blade of grass from the turf courses as well as the furlong poles and rails. You can see the outline of the new Tapeta course and the main track, which now has a base that is three feet higher than before. 

But beyond that there is an area about a mile-and-a-half in circumference filled with peaks and valleys and far more huge piles of dirt than fans saw in July when the last day of racing was conducted in the 1968 version of the facility.

For Glen Kozak, NYRA's executive vice president of operations and capital projects, the decision to end racing at Belmont Park last summer and move downstate racing to nearby Aqueduct Racetrack and shift the 2024 and 2025 Belmont Stakes (G1) and its racing festival to Saratoga Race Course was a wise one that will lead to a quicker and more efficient rebuilding process. The work on the racetracks also means the 1,400 or so strong horse colony at Belmont Park will have to use the training track for the next two years.

"Fortunately the (NYRA) board was great in letting us do it at once. Imagine trying to do it piecemeal. You'd be out here 7-10 years. The minute you'd finish one course you be damaging another. There's no easy way to go about this. You have to rip the Band-Aid off and get it done. This should shorten the timeframe of disrupting everything," Kozak said. "I know it's a significant inconvenience for the horsemen but it makes the project so much more efficient with everything going on at once."

Tina Bond, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the final product should make it all worthwhile for everyone.

"I think everyone is excited for us to get to the end zone, but we know there's going to be some twists and turns," she said. "We have to get there. We're in the middle of it now and we'll just have to keep working together and get to the finish so we can reach the fantastic result we should get in 2026."

Kozak said the work on racing surfaces will be completed before the grandstand. 

A key part of the infield involves the construction of three tunnels that will allow the area to be used by fans for the Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup as well for entertainment and community events.

One tunnel stretches from the backstretch parking lot/train station area to the infield for patrons and trucks, while the other two are frontside. One for vehicles and patrons near the area where the Secretariat marker stood, the other, which allows horses to reach the synthetic track without crossing over the other three surfaces, is situated near the first turn.

The tunnels are virtually complete and need only waterproofing and to be covered by dirt. Kozak estimates that should be finished in a few weeks and with the ground leveled after the tunnels are filled in, work on the surfaces can begin. A tentative plan calls for the Tapeta track to be finished before the end of the year, with the turf tracks completed in the spring of 2025 and the main track by the fall of 2025.

The time frame for resuming workouts on the new surface will hinge on the status of work on the grandstand.

"We want to give training back to the horsemen as soon as we can, as long as it doesn't interfere with the construction," Kozak said.

The new surfaces will feature wider and more consistent turns on the turf courses.

"It was so tight on the turns so we are expanding the crown to get one more lane in," Kozak said.

The distances of the turf courses will be a mile and an eighth for the inner and a mile and a quarter for the Widener. Previously they were a mile and three-sixteenths and a mile and five-sixteenths, respectively.

The old poles will eventually return along with a camera mounted on each of them. There will be new electronics to facilitate better timing and tracking of horses during the races and improved drainage and irrigation with pipes four times larger than the old 4-inch ones.

As for the construction of the new building, which will be financed through a $455 million loan from the state of New York, all of the valuable and historic items are being persevered, such as murals, plaques, and gates. The statue of Secretariat in the paddock has been moved to Saratoga until the reconstruction is completed.

Once all of the seats have been removed, the process of taking apart an outdated structure as long as the Empire State Building is tall will begin. Machines will literally grab parts of the massive building and tear it down.

Breeze National, which handled the demolition of Shea Stadium, has been contracted for the job of taking down the 56-year-old structure, which should take four to six months.

About 75% of the materials from the building will be recycled. Steel girders can be reused and concrete will be pulverized and used in the foundation of the new structure.

The new grandstand will be significantly shorter and less wide, opening up 4 acres of space where there was grandstand seating. That area can be used for temporary hospitality for major events and will be part of more than 30 acres of green space in the backyard area.

Once the shell of the new building is complete, work to move the paddock forward and construction of biking and jogging trails in the backyard will begin.

When all is said and done at the 119-year-old facility, New York fans should have a new oasis for racing suited for the demands of racing and wagering in the 21st century.

"We are right-sizing the building and the amenities it will have, and when you see how the architect (Populous) coordinated the sight lines between the frontside and the paddock, I think it will be awesome," Kozak said.