It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that horse racing first took place in US as long ago as 1665. This was when the Newmarket course, named after its famous predecessor in the UK, was established at Salisbury, Long Island.
But it wasn’t until a couple of centuries later that the sport became more organised in the country with the establishment of the American Stud Book in 1868. It soon flourished and by 1890 there were over 300 racecourses spread across the country.
Much of the sport’s popularity was down to the fact that it appealed to all sectors of society from the wealthy breeders and owners of the thoroughbred horses to the working people who enjoyed a day spent at the track.
Over the years it has fallen in and out of fashion but now that sport betting has been made legal in many States, it’s enjoying something of a resurgence. New York State is one of the places where it is seeing a real rise in its popularity – and there are plenty of places where both racing and harness racing can be enjoyed, including these six prime examples.
Located in Elmont, just east of NYC, Belmont Park is considered to be one of the elites amongst US racetracks. Open each year between April and July for the Summer season and from September to October for the Fall meet, it is most famous as the venue for the Belmont Stakes.
This is a race for three-year-old thoroughbreds run over 1.5 miles which forms the third and final part of the Triple Crown. Featuring wide, sweeping turns, the layout of The Championship Course is the perfect arena for a race of this stature.
Head for Saratoga Springs at any time between mid-July and Labor Day and you’ll find that there’s five-days-a-week racing at this course. Said to be the oldest purpose-built sporting venue in the country, it originally opened in 1863.
Today, perhaps its most famous race in the Saratoga Derby Invitational Stakes. This race, again for three-year-old thoroughbreds, is run each year in August over a little under 11/4 miles with a first prize of $1 million. In 2021 the race was reclassed as Grade 1 by the Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association.
Finger Lakes racetrack opened in May 1962 in Farmington, approximately 25 miles from Rochester. Over the years it has had a fairly rocky ride facing bankruptcy on a number of occasions, but today it is thriving thanks, in no small measure, to the casino that is attached to the track.
Racing highlight of the year is undoubtedly the New York Derby run each July over 11/16 miles. It is a race that is restricted to horses that have been bred in New York State and carries a purse of $150,000. Its local nature means that the betting is particularly active with many people using their local knowledge to estimate how accurate the horse racing odds are for this race.
Aqueduct Racetrack is the only track located within New York City Limits and you’ll find it in the Jamaica area of Queens. Racing usually takes place there over the winter months into the early spring on its three different circuits, the main track, the main turf and the inner turf course, each slightly smaller as you run through the list. This also has a racino attached.
Since 1988 it has been the venue for the Grade 1 race called the Cigar Mile with a purse of $750,000. Originally called the NYRA Mile Handicap, it was renamed in honour of the thoroughbred Cigar having been the second race in his 16-race unbeaten spell.
While thoroughbred racing is very popular in New York State it’s important not to overlook harness racing too. There are several tracks where this takes place and perhaps the most famous is Yonkers Raceway. In the past it has been used for thoroughbred racing but today it is exclusively used for harness racing.
Highlight of the season is probably the mile-long Art Rooney Pace, named in honour of the one-time owner not just of the racetrack, but of the Pittsburgh Steelers too.
Lastly, there’s another harness racing track which was built in 1958 to boost tourism in the Monticello area. Just half a mile in circumference, it’s also known as “The Mighty M”. The great aspect of this circuit is that it’s open all year round. So, the races might not be graded, but you’re guaranteed of action 12 months a year.
Of course, there are many other racetracks throughout the state. But these are definitely the top six. So next time you want some equine action, now you know where to go!