When celebrating the history of Aqueduct Racetrack, one can either take the official opening of September 27, 1894, or the September 14, 1959 inauguration of its newer design. Either way, both dates played a significant role when it came to the world of racing thoroughbreds around the track. As the prestige level of this venue increased over time, so did the level of competition.
The first Aqueduct Racetrack was a utilitarian-style venue that first got its name for its South Ozone Park location in Queens. The Queens County Jockey Club gave it the name because it sat on a conduit that belonged to the Brooklyn Water Works. It delivered water to New York City’s Ridgewood Reservoir from Long Island’s Hempstead Plain. The track was named after the reservoir because of the aqueduct setup.
At first, the racetrack met with a series of challenges as the city was loaded with similar venues, including the more prestigious Morris Park Racecourse in the Bronx and Saratoga. However, when a wealthy skipper named Captain William Carter gifted the racetrack with a hefty investment in 1895, the stage was set to establish a respectable enough racetrack attraction. Because of his contribution, the Carter Handicap was suitably named after him that continues to feature some of the top horses in an event still run today by the Jockey Club.
On July 5, 1926, Aqueduct Racetrack experienced its first dead heat finish when Harry Payne Whitney’s Macaw and Rancouses Stable’s Nedana completed their run of the Carter Handicap at the same time.
Going into 1941, the racetrack built a clubhouse, allowing the facility to expand its operations just in time for summer. The Aqueduct was the site that featured the first and only triple dead heat for a win in a stakes race. This happened in 1944 when three horses, Boussuet, Brownie, and Wait A Bit crossed the finish line at the exact same time while running in the Carter Handicap.
Fourteen years later, the Greater New York Association took over Aqueduct’s operations, as well as Belmont Park, Jamaica Race Course, and Saratoga Race Course. This process led to a decision to sell off the Jamaica location as a residential development, as well as embarking on a major upgrade for the Aqueduct. In 1956, the racetrack was closed for extensive renovations that would ultimately see a brand-new facility.
With 42,473 fans that included New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a new Aqueduct was inaugurated after it underwent nearly thirty-five million dollars worth of renovations and upgrades. Dubbed “the Big A,” the racetrack now featured a four-tier grandstand that could accommodate a much larger crowd than before.
The architects involved were Arthur Froehlich and Associates of Beverly Hills, California. At the time, the design was top-notch with its eighteen escalators and elevators, as well as a total of 34,000 seats between the stands, air-conditioned restaurants, and lounges. It was considered the world’s most modern and luxurious horse plant at the time.
It was during an era horseracing was one of New York City’s greatest sporting events. On May 31, 1965, the Aqueduct had 73,375 spectators at the racetrack to watch Gun Bow win its Metropolitan Mile. It was the largest crowd at the time to ever watch a horse racing event in the city.
From 1958 until 1974, Aqueduct often featured the Jockey Club Gold Cup, an annual marathon that ran a course of just over two miles. In addition to this, the Belmont Stakes were held at Aqueduct from 1963 until 1968 while Belmont Park was undergoing renovations of its own. It was at this particular racetrack the famed Secretariat retired as a racehorse on November 5, 1973. His jockey was Ron Turcotte and the two paraded before thirty thousand fans before heading to the Clairborne Family Farm in Kentucky.
Aqueduct Wood Memorial Stakes has been a longtime favorite venue for racers of the Triple Crown to prepare for the three big races. The majority of the winners from Aqueduct move on to race in the Kentucky Derby. There were eleven winners from this particular race that went on to win the Derby. However, there were many who failed to win go on to win the Derby anyway. Secretariat was one of them as he finished third in the 1973 race before retiring in style by first making an incredible comeback from last to first in that race. The Triple Crown legend also set the 2:24.00 record at Belmont Stakes that has yet to be broken.
Joining Secretariat as a Triple Crown champ was also 1930’s Gallant Fox, 1943’s Count Fleet, 1946’s Assult, and 1977’s Seattle Slew. Each of them also won in the Aqueduct beforehand.
On October 28, 1994, and November 26, 1994, Cigar began his sixteen-race winning streak at the Aqueduct after switching from a grass racetrack to dirt. The Hall of Famer has since had the NYRA Mile renamed to Cigar Mile as of 1997, honoring this feisty thoroughbred and his accomplishments.
During the Wood Memorial Stakes held at Aqueduct on April 6, 2006, there were three dead heats that came about in the positions of Win, Place, and Show. In three separate races, Saint Anddan and Criminal Mind raced for a dead heat Place finish in the fifth race. In the sixth race, Naragansett and Emotrin tied for Show while Karakorum Tuxedo and Megatraned tied for the Win in the tenth race.
When Not Racing
On October 6, 1995, the Aqueduct served as host while Pope John Paul II held a mass before a crowd of seventy-five thousand Catholics. Everybody that was there was blessed with sun and blue sky as they collectively spent a time of religious worship in Jesus Christ’s name.
Every weekend and Tuesday, from 1978 until 2011, the racetrack’s north parking lot served as a venue for a five-hundred-vendor flea market.
Over the stretch of time, Aqueduct Racetrack underwent a series of renovations and upgrades. In 1975, an indoor dirt track measuring one mile was installed so that it could continue as a racetrack during the winter season.
In 1981, it opened up the multi-tiered Equestrias Restaurant, one of the largest in New York City at the time. However, the renovations didn’t stop there. In order to keep up with the times as new technology continued to allow design improvements, the racetrack continued to undergo a series of renovations.
When New York State Legislature made video gambling legal at racetracks in 2001, this came with benefits and problems for the Aqueduct. The revenue was clearly the benefits but the legalities posed a series of problems that put the racetrack at a disadvantage as well.
Then in 2007, there was a push by the New York Governor at the time, Eliot Spitzer, to close Aqueduct Racetrack and sell it off to real estate developers as soon as the NYRA’s lease expired that year. However, this was met with opposition even after NYRA planned to mark February 10, 2008, as the final racing date at the venue. As fate had it, the demise of the racetrack was not in the cards as an agreement was made between NYRA and New York State.
After NYRA sold vacant land near the racetrack in 2009, it had enough capital to work with to keep Aqueduct Racetrack’s legacy going as a world-class facility. This, however, still met with key challenges as changing times had a profound impact on the sport of horseracing. In order to keep up with the changes, NYRA made some key decisions that would ensure Aqueduct would see a solid future as an important piece of New York City’s own legacy.
As fate would have it, the state-run New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation met with so many financial setbacks that it collapsed just before the end of 2010. For Aqueduct Racetrack, this was a good thing as it saw a significant increase in customers immediately after this. Seeing an opportunity unfold before their eyes, the NYSE offered former NYCOTBC customers access to its free shuttle service to access the racetrack now that the competition had been wiped out. In addition to this service, they were also offered free food and non-alcoholic beverage, as well as a free Post Parade program.
Let the Legacy Continue
The biggest change the Aqueduct experienced was the 415,000 square foot Resorts World Casino New York City that was opened up in October 2011. This came after what was also a 2007 state-proposed installment of video lottery terminals in places like the racetrack. It was also during this time casinos and racinos were considered for the property that saw a number of bidders compete against each other in order to win the State of New York’s approval. In the end, the Genting Group was awarded the honors. On October 28, 2011, it opened the Resorts World Casino New York City. Ten years later, the same group opened a Hyatt Regency hotel at the casino’s site.
Now standing where the racetrack’s grandstand once stood, the multi-level casino compliments Aqueduct’s racetrack. It continues to host some of the best autumn and winter racing in the United States. In 2014, the New York Racing Association continued to invest in its future by installing a twenty-four thousand square foot top-class sports bar and simulcasting facility.
It was also in 2014 the racetrack hosted a number of artists who dolled up the Grandstand’s interior and exterior with racing-themed murals. This included an impressive sixty-by-eighty-foot artistic landmark of Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte which can be seen from the Belt parkway.
Just in time for the 2017 fall races, NYRA resurfaced the main track with a limestone base and the inner dirt track back to the turf. The change was necessary to allow the main track to cater winter horseracing events. Today, this 210-acre facility situated in South Ozone Park continues to grace the borough of Queens, along with the City of New York, with its presence. With all the extensive renovations and upgrades its undergone, this is more than just a seasonal venue. What started out as a local hangout for horseracing enthusiasts quickly became a major draw for owners and spectators around the world. It’s still considered a world-class facility today.
Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.
History Of Aqueduct Racetrack article published on ClassicNewYorkHistory.com ©2022
ClassicNewYorkHistory.com claims ownership of all its original content and Intellectual property under United States Copyright laws and those of all other foreign countries. No one person, business, or organization is allowed to re-publish any of our original content anywhere on the web or in print without our permission. All photos used in the articles are either original photographs taken by ClassicNewYorkHistory.com journalists, public domain creative commons photos or photos licensed officially from Shutterstock under license with ClassicNewYorkHistory.com and ClassicRockHistory.com. All photo credits have been placed at end of the article.
We are not responsible for any locations visited based on our recommendations or information included in the articles as the website is for entertainment purposes only.