At Track With Slots, Horse Shortage Cans Opener

Vernon Downs, an upstate New York harness track, may have gaming machines, but it didn’t have enough horses to card a program for opening night, April 6.

Officials said April 3 the season opener has been pushed back to April 7, when a 13-race card will be offered. Jason Settlemoir, regional vice president of racing operations and simulcast for Vernon Downs and its sister track, Tioga Downs, said a horse shortage caused the change in schedule. The Friday and Saturday programs were combined.

“We want to put our best forward with a good product on Saturday night,” he said.

On April 4, Vernon Downs announced that Thursday racing would be suspended until there are enough horses available to support three programs per week. Poor weather conditions in the area delayed the opening of the racing surface, so not all horses are fit to race, officials said.

There currently are four harness tracks--Buffalo Raceway, Monticello Raceway, Saratoga Raceway, and Yonkers Raceway--open in New York; each one has video gaming machines and an improved product because of purse hikes. In addition, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, a harness racino located in Pennsylvania not far from the New York border, opened March 31 offering about $100,000 a day in purses.

The season at Tioga Downs, which opens in May, overlaps the Vernon Downs meet. The other tracks will be open as well.

In March, Meadowlands, the premier harness track in the country, dropped one night of racing per week because of competition for horses. The New Jersey track was hit particularly hard by Yonkers, where the top overnight races each week go for $35,000.

Jeff Gural, who was instrumental in the passage of video gaming legislation in New York and is a partner in Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs, has said in published reports revenue projections from gaming at Vernon Downs have fallen short and the track is losing money. Vernon Downs competes with a nearby Indian casino.

Legislation that would increase the share of revenue tracks get from gaming has been pushed by Gural and introduced in the New York legislature.

Things could get interesting horse population-wise on the Thoroughbred side in the Mid-Atlantic region this summer with Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack projecting average daily purses of about $300,000. Other tracks open in the region during the summer are Charles Town Races & Slots, Colonial Downs, Delaware Park, Monmouth Park, and Penn National Race Course.