The head of the horsemen's group at New York's Finger Lakes racetrack said the facility could be forced to close in the coming years unless state officials take action to protect it from a new commercial casino selected this week to be located just a few thruway exits away from the Thoroughbred track.
The horsemen, breeders, and jockey representatives are already engaged in strategy sessions to seek ways to hold harmless the looming competition from a full-blown casino just a half-hour away from Finger Lakes, said David Brown, president of the track's Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
If actions are not taken by state officials to protect purse account levels and avoid a drop in state tax rates paid by the state, Brown said "racing at Finger Lakes will be gone in two to three years." He said 90% of his 500 members could not stay in business if purse levels drop below the $20 million or so mark they've been running in recent years.
A state gaming commission site panel this week selected the town of Tyre in Seneca County, located between Rochester and Syracuse just off the New York State Thruway, for one of the new commercial casino licenses. Two other casino plans, one in Schenectady and another in Sullivan County in the Catskills, were also selected out of 16 proposals submitted.
The selection panel had to choose proposals for three different geographic areas of the state. In the central part of the state, the casino expansion plan was originally billed as an effort to help the state's southern tier, which is in the greater Binghamton area.
Two casino plans were submitted for that region, including one by Tioga Downs harness track. They were rejected in favor of the Seneca County site, which was included in legislation last year in what critics called a gerrymander map-drawing effort that stretched what's known as Region 5 from the southern tier along a narrow band of land to the Seneca County area.
Finger Lakes racetrack is owned by Delaware North; a spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Brown said the horsemen and breeders will be seeking solutions both with the Legislature and gaming commission. At issue is the definition of "region." The statute essentially says that if the state sited one of the new casinos within the region where a racino is located, the casino would have to make payments to the racino to ensure that future purse payments are kept at 2013 levels, plus an annual inflation adjustment.
But Brown said the provision is not certain that the word "region" means, in this case, Region 5—the casino zone stretching from the southern tier to near Rochester—or within a geographic region of the state. "So if the word 'region' means 'neighborhood,' which of course the Tyre facility is in the neighborhood, then the way that is interpreted is the Tyre casino would have to support our purse accounts at the 2013 levels," Brown said.
If region means just Region 5 of the casino-designated areas, then Brown said it would mean the Tyre casino would have to protect purse accounts at Tioga Downs, located some 2 1/2 hours away.
Brown said Finger Lakes has already estimated a revenue drop of 30-50% with the opening of the Tyre casino, which is located about 25 miles away and will be allowed to offer real slot machines and table games such as poker. The Finger Lakes casino is permitted to have video lottery terminals and no table games.
Brown said he met some months ago with the developers of the Tyre casino and they shook hands on a deal: that the horsemen would not specifically oppose the casino if they in turn did not stop efforts to ensure purse levels are not hurt by the new gambling facility. Brown said his board will be holding a meeting Dec. 23 to discuss a strategy for dealing with the Tyre situation.
He said he expects Finger Lakes executives will be looking to cut the facility's annual state tax tab, which he put at about $80 million from racino revenue sharing proceeds, because of the expected hit Finger Lakes will take from the Tyre casino.
"It's going to take a major hit," he said of Finger Lakes' revenue. "Then the next question becomes what can be negotiated on the racino side...I expect Finger Lakes' lobbyists are going to be all over Albany working out some sort of deal to make them whole."
The horsemen's group president said an array of interests, from racing to agriculture, are now working on a strategy to cope with the Tyre casino announcement.
"All kinds of people have an interest in Finger Lakes continuing," Brown said.