Monticello horsemen declare war against casino

06:19 PM 07 Mar 2014 NZDT
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By Bill Liblick, re-printed with permission by www.sullivancountypost.com

As EPR Properties and Empire Resorts prepares to present their resort destination plans next Thursday evening at a private presentation at Bethel Woods, and not at Empire’s operational facility, the harness racing horsemen at Monticello Raceway have declared war.

The horsemen feel they have been betrayed and used as a pawn by Empire Resorts, the owner of Monticello Raceway, and are fearful that the Standardbred racetrack and the industry that has employed thousands of residents over the years in Sullivan County will be gone if the company receives a license to operate a full-fledged gaming hall.

When racino’s were permitted in New York State it saved the horse racing industry from dying.

The introduction of video slot terminals has seen racetracks such as Monticello, Tioga Downs, Saratoga, and Yonkers flourish thanks to a percentage of the take going into racing purses.

Although attendance and actual pool totals from Monticello Raceway attendees is minimal, the racetrack has become a cash cow for Empire Resorts thanks to simulcasting and off-track betting wagering.  Monticello Raceway has in essence become a huge television studio.

Under proposals from EPR and Empire Resorts they say they are going to construct a new harness track at the Concord no matter what happens – with or without table games – but will they?

Horsemen claim Empire Resorts is capping purses at 2013 levels and if they are granted a table gaming license there will be no increases. They also say there are no guarantees the harness track will even remain open.

The Monticello Harness Horsemen’s Association has declared a war against Empire Resorts. They argue track owners slammed the door on them once the resort destination amendment was approved in November and that they refuse to negotiate.

Things are so bad, the horsemen have exercised their right to stop Monticello’s simulcast signal from being broadcast, preventing Empire Resorts and New York State from receiving millions in revenue. Empire has since slashed purses and cut back the number of races in a card. They have even shut down the horsemen’s lunch room.

According to Alan Schwartz, President of Monticello’s Harness Association The dispute between management and the horsemen at Monticello Raceway is very easy to understand. “The parent company of the racetrack seeks to obtain a lucrative license to construct a Las Vegas style casino, complete with slot machines and table games. They would be one of just two, and possibly the only casino permitted in the Catskills. Despite the tremendous windfall such a license would bring to the parent company, it flatly refuses to allow the horsemen or breeders to share in any portion of the huge anticipated profits.”

Schwartz claims that “in order to get the casino amendment passed, management both figuratively and literally called the horsemen their “partners.” The logo of their lobbying group prominently contains a horse. Their radio commercials ballyhooed their support for racing. Of course, once the amendment passed, management’s idea of “partnership” quickly degenerated.”

Under the present video lottery gaming law, horsemen and breeders get a fixed percentage of the track’s net win. When a racino underperforms, the purse money generated is less, even though it isn’t the horsemen’s fault. When the racino does well, purses go up modestly – In essence a true economic partnership.

Schwartz maintains Empire Resorts wants a firm cap on purses and breeding contributions at 2013 levels. He says if that happens, harness racing will become a near-zero or zero growth industry.

“Nobody is going to buy or breed horses in this state when places like Ohio, Massachusetts, Delaware and Pennsylvania offer significantly more industry support.”

Schwartz acknowledges that harness racing won’t die in the next several years, but “consider, however, that the price of feed, diesel fuel, veterinary services; literally anything you can think of, will be significantly higher in just a few years. Once you can’t pay to maintain racehorses, the sport will evaporate from sheer economics – And that’s exactly what our racetrack management “partners” would love to see happen.”

Although Empire Resorts blames Albany for the horsemen’s plight, Schwartz asserts the law speaks only about minimum contributions. “No government can interfere with the private right of contract. Racetrack management hides behind Albany when, in reality, their own lobbyists pushed for and signed off on the legislation.”

Schwartz says “The horsemen and breeders at Monticello and elsewhere refuse to be “silent” former partners. If management wishes to embrace us as economic partners, as mandated under the video lottery gaming law, gaming can move forward in a meaningful way in the Catskills, and the renaissance created by Albany through the VLT program can continue to flourish, for not only the six harness tracks owners but also for the state, education and the agriculture and racing industries. If that doesn’t occur, we really have nothing else to lose.”

Schwartz professes he is trying to negotiate in good faith, but Empire Resorts is not, so with “few weapons in this fight” they had to pull the simulcasting signal.

“We are also acutely aware of the loss of revenue to the track, the horsemen and the industry. Yet, we have pondered just how much money these track operators strive for while they jeopardize an entire industry for their own profit; a racing industry that worked hard to spawn the birth of VLTs at tracks in this and other states. We cannot just sit by and watch an industry get swallowed up by a handful of track operators professing to be concerned about our sport, whose ultimate goal is to kill it.”

The right to withhold the export of signal from Monticello is a right granted to horsemen by Federal law.

Schwartz explained, “That 1978 law very wisely recognizes that the horsemen at a host track are the real guardians of this sport. It armed the horsemen with the important tool to use only when they perceived a crisis threatening the very existence of the game. It has been used very sparingly and with the utmost of caution.”

A mediator has been appointed by the New York State Gaming Commission in an attempt to resolve the situation.

Charles Degliomini, executive vice president of Empire Resorts/Monticello Raceway issued the following statement in response the suspension of simulcasting.

“Monticello Casino & Raceway (“MC&R”) continues to support the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act (“Gaming Act”). When they authored the Gaming Act, the Senate, Assembly and the Executive protected the Monticello Harness Horsemen’s Association (“MHHA”), and the entire racing industry. As New York State moves toward approving four casinos in upstate New York, future revenue for the horsemen is governed by the Gaming Act, and current revenue is governed by the New York State Lottery for Education Law.

Degliomini added, “It is sad and unfortunate that we are being attacked for legislation that actually protects harness horsemen’s interests. While MC&R continues in good faith, through negotiation and mediation, to attempt to secure an agreement with MHHA, the MHHA is now attempting to amend a law that they don’t like by unfairly punishing our business, our employees, our loyal customers and even their own members. We are simply track owners, not elected officials. The MHHA should stop this destructive behavior and turn the simulcasting signal back on.”

With all the new resort destination proposals coming out of the woodwork this dispute is something Sullivan County does not need. Schwartz does raise many valid concerns that must be addressed if a racino operator is granted a full gaming license, Monticello Raceway, the horsemen, and the industry must be protected.

 

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