Open Letter from Monticello horsemen on negotiations

12:46 PM 15 Feb 2014 NZDT
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The following Open Letter is from Alan Schwartz, President of the Monticello Harness Horsemen's Association

I offer this to help those who are concerned about the future of harness racing in New York State. Please allow me to answer some of the queries I have received from horse racing fans and others about the contract stalemate with Empire Resorts at Monticello Raceway.

The Monticello stalemate is about saving our industry from those private New York racetrack operators who want to morph into standalone casinos. It is about an effort to stop the track owners from destroying harness racing by actively telling legislators and other government officials in Albany that increasing the track operators' profits and shortchanging racing is the right thing to do. The New York Gaming Association (NYGA) members (consisting of all seven NY harness track owners, as well as the owners of Finger Lakes Racetrack and Resorts World in Queens) are hell bent on maximizing profits for themselves through the death of the Agriculture and Racing industries. They do this by pointing to racing deficiencies they themselves are orchestrating.

Consider that, despite the fact that New York State offers racino operators a dollar for dollar reimbursement for marketing racing, most don't spend a dime marketing the sport. Worse still, the track operators blame the horsemen for not cutting purses to market the sport; of course, unlike the track operators, the horsemen would receive no reimbursement. By not marketing racing with money literally given to them by the state, the tracks simply seek to hasten the end of racing. The sooner they get rid of racing, the more money will flow into their pockets from VLTs, and soon slot machine and table game revenue. The tracks continue to receive roughly half of all racing and simulcasting revenue, but that apparently isn't good enough for them.

Think again about these racetrack operators going to Albany and hiring virtually every lobbyist in the state to sell a bill of goods. They argue that the state should limit the future of the agriculture and racing industries by capping payments and stifling the growth of a 4.2 billion dollar industry and the livelihoods of 32,000 people. Then they argue for a better tax rate for themselves on casino games. All the while, they have the audacity to trumpet their support for racing and agriculture on their website. They are fooling no one.

NYGA argues that the renaissance in racing should be stopped because the horsemen are getting too much from the expanded gaming revenue the VLTs have brought to New York. They selfishly hide the fact they make three-fold the amount the horsemen receive. That doesn't account for all of the related sales they make, like on a $4 bottle of water. Funny, but the law they lobbied for doesn't cap their revenue. Putting a cap on the future of racing is today's latest assault on our industry. As the harness track operators gain casino growth and exponential power in the state's capitol, don't be surprised if you see deeper racing industry cuts in the future. Plug in any state capitol you want; Albany; Harrisburg and, don't be fooled, Trenton too.

Monticello is the first to face this challenge directly. The Monticello Harness Horsemen's Association supported a casino here, thinking we would not be neglected. We extended our agreement with the track for at least eighteen months before the stalemate in an effort to try to work things out. First, we want to see what the law would provide. Then, we waited to see if the statewide casino amendment would be approved in early November. Later that month, Monticello slammed the door in our face. Obviously, NYGA has drawn the line.

The hope was to negotiate something fairer than a 2013 purse level cap and a yearly consumer price index (CPI) increase. The yearly CPI is negligible, hovering at about 1.4%. In one recent year, it was actually a negative number. Think about how much the price of diesel or a bag of sweet feed has gone up in recent years. The cap and CPI 'increase' would assure our destruction.

Realize that instead of growing purses at the current 8.75 % VLT level (and N.Y. Sire Stakes by 1.25%), the tracks will now have slot machines; this permits them to get rid of VLTs and the horsemen and breeders' percentages that flow from them, while the tracks increase revenue and grow.

These track operators engineered a law that will, for all intent and purposes, freeze our industry out of existence in the long term. Tell your supplier of feed, your vet and blacksmith that they can't raise their prices above 2013 levels in the years to come because of the selfish action of the NYGA track owners. Think about all the free play money doled out to the VLT players, while a handicapper gets but a torn up ticket on a horse race at the same venue. As was said not too long ago "If you don't fight for your future, you may wake up one day and wonder why you don't have one."

MHHA's leadership has tried, and continues to try in good faith to negotiate with management something that is fair and reasonable. We seek to moderately share in their casino revenue success above the cap foisted upon us by them in the latest version of the law.

The MHHA has very few weapons in this fight, but we would be even more foolish after eighteen months of failing to realize some progress not to use them. We are aware that the exported simulcast signal and its pools are important to the loyal fans of the daytime harness racing Monticello and its horsemen provide. 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 and 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 across the N.Y.S. line is a right granted to horsemen by Federal law. 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.

I recall the law being invoked in 1987/88 by the horsemen at Roosevelt Raceway when management refused to sign a contract with anyone in order to clear the path to closing its doors. Ultimately, management not only closed, but stole the overnight purse account on the way out the doors. Also, as an MHHA board member in 2006, we withheld simulcasting consent here at Monticello.

At Roosevelt, had permission to simulcast been granted, its Management would simply have taken even more money from the horsemen's pocket when its plan to close was realized. At Monticello, we have watched these developments over the years. We can no longer support a casino here that excludes the growth we have all; agricultural; racing and breeding shared, over the years.

We will not fold up our tents and watch our game be destroyed by greed. We remain hopeful that the N.Y.S. mediator, appointed by the Gaming Commission, will continue to work to bring us to some common and sensible ground upon which to preserve each other's goals in a reasonable, and not one-sided, fashion. After eighteen months, we would welcome some progress. Hopefully, the next time you hear from me, the news will be better for our game.

 

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