A day after the Saratoga racino announced it had deserted plans to pursue casino gambling in Saratoga Springs in favor of East Greenbush, hundreds of patrons placed bets on the racino’s video lottery terminals while trotters and pacers at the harness track enjoyed a day off.
Simmering beneath the calm at Saratoga Casino and Raceway, however, was uncertainty and nervousness. Horsemen were worried the state’s casino sweepstakes were leaving them behind. They said the future of the sport looked cloudy.
“There could be a serious situation down the road, serious effects on harness racing in Saratoga,” said Thomas McTygue, a former longtime public works commissioner who races standardbreds at Saratoga and Vernon Downs.
A 10-year contract between the racino and its horsemen concludes at the end of 2015. If business sags at the racino when a casino opens in the Capital Region, as expected, the facility’s owners may not be able to fund stall space, water and backstretch maintenance that horse owners depend on, McTygue said. Additional costs would put many horsemen out of business, he said.
Horses have raced at the Saratoga harness track for 73 years. Ten years ago, the facility introduced video lottery machines, which many credit with rescuing the sport by funding race rewards. Horsemen at the Saratoga last year received $13 million in purse money from VLTs. A provision in the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act may cushion the blow. The law requires any new casino that is not a racino to provide horsemen with the same amount of purse support from casino gambling that the racinos received from VLTs in 2013. However, state legislators could reduce or terminate that subsidy in the future, McTygue said.
“Everything is up in the air,” he said.
Saratoga Casino and Raceway owners wanted to add table games — Las Vegas-style casino gambling — to the site, but officially dropped the effort Monday amid community opposition that an expansion of gambling would drain business from the city’s downtown and harm the community’s quality of life.
The racino stands to lose half its business if a casino opens elsewhere in the Capital Region, according to Daniel Gerrity, the racino’s majority owner. It would mitigate the losses through a $30 million hotel expansion at the racino and the casino or casinos it would like to build, racino spokesperson Rita Cox said.
On Tuesday, the racino’s owners confirmed they would apply for a state license to build a casino not only in Rensselaer County but also in Newburgh, Orange County. “This will allow us to ensure the long-term future of harness racing,” Cox said.
Still, as McTygue pointed out, the racino must compete against other applicants and there’s no guarantee the racino will win a license for either site. Another concern among horsemen is the fact that the hotel expansion at the Saratoga racino would be built on the site’s training track. Horses would practice on the main track, Cox said.
The uncertainties make those in the harness racing industry uncomfortable about the future, said Betty Holt, executive director of Harness Horse Breeders of New York State.
“I don’t think anyone feels good about it,” Holt said. “I hear a lot of people saying this is the beginning of the end for us.”