Harness Track Vernon Downs Feeling Pinch From Casinos

Harness Track Vernon Downs Feeling Pinch From Casinos
Photo: The Meadowlands
Jeff Gural

An upstate New York harness racetrack, struggling to compete with added casino gambling in the region, is scuttling plans to open for another racing season April 21.

Jeff Gural, owner of Vernon Downs, a track and casino located between Utica and Syracuse, said he will not open the track until there is a resolution of his bid to get New York to lower his racino's state taxes. Gural estimated his facility is losing $150,000 each month to added competition from casinos operated by the Oneida Indian Nation and two new commercial casinos to the west and east of Vernon Downs.

"I lose money with the racing, so I could not add insult to injury and open racing and lose more money,'' said Gural, a Manhattan real estate developer who also owns Tioga Downs track in the southern tier portion of the state and operates Meadowlands track in New Jersey. "I'm just trying to survive."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers approved a new state budget April 9 that did not include a drop in the tax rate requested by Gural for his track.

Gural said Vernon Downs is losing more money with the recent opening of two new commercial casinos, one called del Lago Resort & Casino midway between Syracuse and Rochester; and the other near Albany called Rivers Casino & Resort. But Vernon Downs, he said, was already impacted when the nearby Oneida Indian Nation added a new casino in the region in 2015.

Besides opening a new casino as the state began approving new commercial gambling facilities, the Oneidas also made major improvements at the Turning Stone casino, located a short drive from Vernon Downs. Turning Stone has expanded no-smoking areas at its casino, which bolstered traffic there.

Gural sought to get a reduction in the percentage of what Vernon Downs' own casino pays to the state of New York in revenue-sharing taxes on its slot machine revenues. The state budget was adopted April 9 and did not include that tax break.

"I really thought it wouldn't be too hard to convince the powers that be,'' Gural said of his request to Albany.

Vernon Downs closed in 2008 when Gural sought to re-direct revenues at the track into marketing efforts to help grow its casino operations. The state quickly acted and the track re-opened after three days.

Gural said the current fight goes far beyond a pitch over additional marketing dollars. Instead, the fight is for the track's survival. "Now, it's that or I close and we lose 300 people,'' Gural said of tax breaks needed to help him employ 300 people that have jobs during the racing season.

The Legislature is on a break until April 24.

Gural said the track will not open unless the state recognizes the shift in gambling to other facilities, which also share revenues with the state, and away from Vernon Downs.

"I expect there will be a resolution. I'm hoping this fell through the cracks and when they go back after the break they'll adjust the rates,'' he said. He estimated Vernon Downs has provided $150 million in tax revenues to the state since opening in 2006.

The Harness Horse Association of Central New York said the decision by Gural goes against the track's contract with horsemen, which requires an April 21 opening. The group said the state Gaming Commission has okayed the track's race schedule and only that agency, not Vernon Downs, can adjust the race dates.

The group said race dates over the years have fallen from more than 100 days to 84 in 2016.

"As the statutorily recognized horsemen's association and recognized by management as the sold bargaining representative for all participating horsemen at Vernon Downs, we do not enjoy being put in the position of pawns in an effort to force the Legislature to reduce the tax rate,'' the group said in a statement.

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