By Mike Kane
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — As racing looks to the future in New York state, trainer Rick Violette sees a few years where Saratoga Race Course could be open for two or three months.
While further expansion of the 40-day Saratoga season is an annual topic, Violette predicted Tuesday that a longer upstate meet would be needed if Aqueduct Racetrack is closed to allow for the expansion of the Genting-run casino on the property, now owned by New York State. Speaking on the panel “The Newest NYRA and the Future,” at Albany Law School’s Saratoga Institute on Equine Racing and Gaming, Violette said Belmont Park would likely not be available while it is being transformed into a year-round facility.
“If we decided tomorrow to come to an agreement with Genting and the state on moving racing out of Aqueduct, it still would be a four- or five-year project,” said Violette, who is the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “When you start reconfiguring Belmont–and I’m losing my argument, I just assumed blow it up and start with a clean piece of paper–but I think we’re going to end up rehabbing and reconfiguring the existing Belmont Park.”
Violette said that in order to continue racing during the winter in metro New York, it is possible that a synthetic track would be constructed in the middle of the gigantic infield at Belmont Park. Tunnels would needed to provided access to the new track.
“It’s a two- or three-year project on its own,” Violette said. “And there will be a number of years where we will be racing eight months, nine months at Aqueduct. I’m assuming there will be an extended stay up [in Saratoga] if we ever have to close down Belmont. Whether it’s July and August. That’s the reality. We’re not going to race 10 1/2 months at Aqueduct when we have this facility to use. That certainly has to be on the table and open to discussions. I certainly can’t see us being here forever for two or three months, but for a couple of years it’s a real possibility that has to happen.
The two state legislators who represent Saratoga Springs, Senator Kathleen Marchione and Assemblywoman Carrie
Woerner, played central roles in returning the New York Racing Association to private control this year. Marchione said the move away from state management–two years later than expected–was long overdue. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seized NYRA in May 2012 after a report said that officials of the embattled association did not properly change the payouts on a multi-race wager. The transfer back to a private not-for-profit company was part of the 2017-18 state budget.
“Year after year, reprivatization was delayed. Some expressed concerns that the reprivatization would never happen,” Marchione said. “It was one of the biggest public policy challenges that we have faced as legislators. The focus was for the state to finally honor its promise to reprivatize NYRA without changing the formula on how monies would be allocated. It faced a great deal of resistance and pushback from Albany. It’s not an exaggeration to say that reprivatization was a major lift.”
Woermer said that there has been a lot of talk about the makeup of the 17-member NYRA board because it includes many state appointees. She noted that the state is a stakeholder in racing and needs to be represented, but said changes may be made.
“As we see how reprivatization is working, those numbers might be modified to better reflect a more workable formulation,” she said.
Among the issues that need to be addressed, Woermer said, is whether NYRA will continue to receive the payments from Aqueduct casino that were part of the transfer of the titles for Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga to the state. Already, racing has lost revenue from a move by the state that allowed Nassau County to be given a percentage of the profit from a number of the VLT machines at Aqueduct.
“We do have some additional work to do,” she said. “This legislation got us to a certain level, but we’ve got further to do.”
Racing and gaming consultant Dick Powell said that the newest edition of NYRA faces gaming competition that figures to be a serious problem.
“We have sports betting on the horizon. It’s going to happen,” Powell said. “I don’t know when. I don’t know how. I don’t have those answers, but it’s going to happen. It’s going to be really dangerous for horse racing because most horse players love to bet on sports. Sports betting and racing co-exist in Australia and many other countries. It’s not a problem, but they don’t have our model where we race six days a week at Saratoga and five days a week most of the rest of year. They race mostly on weekends. They co-exist in certain countries, but it’s going to be new and different.”
New York has allowed four casinos to be built upstate–the closest one to Saratoga is 20 miles to the south in Schenectady–and the next step is for casinos to open in metro New York. Powell said it would be a big competitive force on horseplayers.
“With casinos there is an overlap of universes,” he said. “Horseplayers do like to shoot craps and play blackjack and poker. So a full-blown casino in New York City can’t help, and especially if it’s being run by a company that has shown so far that they are pretty much anti horse racing. That worries me a lot.”
Violette expects that the state will want to end racing at Aqueduct and have NYRA consolidate its operations at Belmont Park.
“I have to believe it’s going to happen,” he said. “Whether it’s five years or 10 years down the road, it seems like it’s going to happen. It’s probably a logical thing, but there are some fundamental questions that have to be answered and promised and guaranteed before we get to that step.”
Topping the list, he said, is to determine what is the value of the 14 years left on the franchise are worth in the marketplace.
“Genting, to be able to expand, to have a full-blown casino and entertainment center, will be willing to put up some sizable amount of investment dollars, whether it’s a billion dollars of 700 million, somewhere in there,” Violette said. “The racing industry needs to know how much of that, if not all, is going to stay in the racing industry, or if Governor Cuomo, or whoever is governor when this happens, plans to just take that over into the state and transfer it with the land.
“I think it’s a fundamental question I think almost before you do anything as far as consolidation needs to be answered. We need to know what our presence is worth. If it’s, well, geez, you guys aren’t going to get anything,’ then there is no need to leave. I truly think it’s that simple. What are you going to pay us to buy us out to pay us to move across town?”