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Origins of the New York City Horse Racing Scene

Contrary to popular belief, horses aren’t native to the Americas. They had actually become extinct shortly after the Ice Age and only returned following the arrival of European colonists in the 16th century, before eventually becoming an integral part of Native American culture over the next 200 years.

To this day, historians still debate how Native peoples first obtained horses and how they became so widespread throughout North America, whether it was via trade or capture of stray animals. However, many agree that horsemanship amongst Native peoples spread northwards from a colonial Spanish trading center at Santa Fe, in what is modern-day New Mexico.

As for the origin of thoroughbred races in the United States, the very first horse racing event actually dates back to 1665 and the Newmarket course in Salisbury, New York, in what is now known as the Hempstead area of Nassau County in Long Island. This was organized by Richard Nichols, the first governor of New York Province at the time, when the area was still under English colonial rule.

Given there’s such a long and traditional history associated with thoroughbred horse racing in the state of New York, it’s hardly surprising that the ‘Sport of Kings’ remains hugely popular here; albeit with the irony that the two most famous tracks are actually located within the vicinity of the Queens borough of New York City.

aqueduct horse racing

Image: nyra.com/aqueduct

Aqueduct

First opened in September 1894, Aqueduct Racetrack celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2019 and remains the only racetrack within New York City limits. Located in the South Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, this famous venue actually came very close to closure in 2007, when New York Governor of the time Eliot Spitzer considered selling the 192-acre site and stables to a property developer.

Fortunately, those plans were shelved and Aqueduct remains open for business, largely thanks to the addition of the Resorts World New York City casino complex in 2011, when gambling laws in the state became a little more relaxed. While online betting in New York City and statewide is still awaiting legislative approval, fans of horse racing can at least enjoy wagering on the races at this popular venue.

Racing meets on the two turfed and main dirt circuits are typically held throughout the winter and spring seasons at Aqueduct, from the end of October and through until April. For those interested in how the venue acquired its unusual name, it’s because the site is located next to a former Brooklyn Waterworks aqueduct that brought water from eastern Long Island to the Ridgewood Reservoir, in nearby Highland Park.

mud racing horses aqueduct

Image: nyra.com/aqueduct

Belmont Park

While not actually located within New York City limits, the Belmont Park racetrack is situated just on the other side of the Cross Island Parkway from Queens Village, within the Elmont neighborhood of Nassau County. Opened in 1905, the original racetrack and grandstand for spectators remained within the Hempstead Plains area of Long Island, just a short distance from where the very first horse races were held in the United States back in 1665.

Although the original venue was demolished in 1963 and race meetings were moved to Aqueduct, the course was completely rebuilt and accompanied by the largest grandstand in racing with over 100,000 capacity for spectators. At the time of writing, the Belmont Park Arena is under construction as part of a $1.3 billion project, with the multi-purpose arena set to become home for the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League.

As for the horse races, Belmont Park hosts meetings through spring and summer, usually featuring a 48-day calendar that begins in late April and concludes in June. By far the biggest event at the venue is the annual Belmont Stakes, which is also one of the most famous race meetings in the United States, typically held on the first or second Saturday of June. Known as “The Test of the Champion” given the prestige of this race, it is the last of the Triple Crown races following the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

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