A trumpet tune played overhead. Eight horses galloped across a dirt track toward a starting gate as a crowd of a few dozen people, mostly older men, sat under the unfiltered sun at a viewing deck situated at track-level. 

Most held a rolled-up betting guide in one hand and a cigarette in the other — their bodies leaned slightly forward to turn their attention to the track with one minute left to go before the first race of the fall season commenced at the Aqueduct racetrack in Ozone Park, Queens.

“And they’re off,” a voice said through the speaker overhead, officially bringing to a start the 28-day fall meet called “Belmont at the Big A” in what may be one of the last racing seasons at New York City’s only horse track.

While Belmont Park on Long Island is undergoing construction, its namesake races are happening at the Aqueduct track, already the home of a “racino” run by gambling giant Resorts World, which is widely expected to receive one of the three licenses for full-service casinos downstate that Albany is expected to issue as soon as this year.

Dwight Tracey, left, cheers on his horses during a race. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

And that, in turn, is expected to roughly coincide with the end of racing at the track that first opened in 1894. These days, the once huge “sport of kings” has become an increasingly unpopular and unprofitable enterprise subsidized by the state’s cut of the money people lose to gambling at the racino.

Aqueduct’s land has been eyed as a potential place to house migrants while community organizers dream of using it to erect thousands of units of affordable housing. But the land will again be used for horse races this fall while Belmont Park, next door to the arena that hosts the NHL’s Islanders, installs a synthetic racing surface and a new park as part of an upgrade that the New York Racing Association called “the most significant racetrack construction projects in modern memory.” 

People wait in line to place bets on opening day at Aqueduct. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The goal is “to consolidate all downstate racing and training activities at the new Belmont Park” once construction is completed in 2026, according to a NYRA announcement issued days after the state legislature passed a budget in May that included a $455 million loan to makeover Belmont Park.

When the association completes the Long Island track’s overhaul, it will also relinquish its state-owned lease at Aqueduct and close down the track there to make way for new developments.

“I don’t feel pleased about that,” said 63-year-old Winston Taylor, who was at the track Thursday, and had worked as a fisherman before immigrating to Queens from Jamaica 29 years ago. “Belmont, they should destroy… because it’s easier to come to the Aqueduct from the city to here. From Brooklyn, from Queens, this is just right in the center.”

‘Time to Grieve’

Taylor, who traveled on the subway from Canarsie to be at the Big A on opening day, also worked as a horse breeder for four years in Jamaica. His secret to a winning horse: A strong collarbone and a set of good feet. “These are world-cup horses,” he added. “Not like in Jamaica. We got those horses — they’re mules.”

His friend Christine Reeves, 56, credited Taylor for getting her into horse-racing — though, with a betting guide in hand, she said she only “sometimes” trusts his judgements on what horses to bet on.

“I’m still not fully into it,” Reeves said. “Because I don’t like the gambling part. But I like to see what’s going on.”

Christine Reeves said she likes the horses more than the betting. Credit: Haidee Chu/THE CITY

Others in the sparse crowd were also said they were there for the horses, not the betting. That included a man who sat nearby at a bench closer to the track and declined to be named because he “snuck out of work to be here and my wife doesn’t know.” That 55-year-old spectator and Brooklyn native said that he’s eager to see Belmont Park transformed.

“I love Belmont because this is not my cup of tea,” said the man, who called Aqueduct a “hardcore” racetrack. “If you go to Belmont, even before they do the construction, you’ll never come back … It’s all grass, trees, televisions. You can bring the kids and grandkids. The atmosphere is completely different.”

The man recalled that he was 17 years old when he snuck out of high school to visit Aqueduct for the first time, along with a friend whose father owned horses. “And I’ve been hooked ever since,” he said. 

He loved horses so much, he said, that his wife and two sons gifted him 1% ownership of a horse for his birthday last year. His face beamed with pride as he recalled flying down to Gulfstream Park in Florida to watch his horse race — and win.

“We went in the winner’s circle,” he said as the horses and jockeys entered the final lap of the first race at Aqueduct. He continued: “Thirty years of horse racing and I never did that.”

As he spoke, patrons who had been sitting rose from their chairs, pounding tables and flailing their arms in the air and snapping their fingers as they encouraged their respective horses. 

“Go, go, go,” one man yelled. “Come on, eight,” another shouted. No. 8 (named “​​L’Imperator”) placed  second, just behind No. 4 (“Merry Maker”). Some betters high-fived one another while others cursed or looked visibly deflated.

A man watches the horses on opening day at Aqueduct. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Wayne Lemon, 27, sat in the shade with a neutral expression as the crowd began to settle down for the second race. “It’s too much emotion here,” he said. 

Lemon said he had come to Aqueduct for the first time while he was still in college, when a statistics professor described horse-betting as a “sport that you can make money without losing a lot.” 

He didn’t say if that advice had borne out, but he did recall walking out of Aqueduct a few years ago with $60,000 from a $600 bet. 

“I paid off my tuition, and I treated myself,” said Lemon, who wasn’t looking forward to the end of horse races here. 

“This is my first track, so it’s a little shocking,” Lemon said. “But I got a lot of time to grieve.”