Some New York Tracks to Have VLTs Within Months

by Tom Precious and Tom LaMarra

As the New York Racing Association sits on the video lottery terminal sidelines, others in New York are racing ahead with efforts to get the devices up and running, possibly by the end of the year.

Still, the timetables of some tracks may be overly ambitious because a host of issues--from licensing by a state agency never before involved in such an endeavor to deciding which electronic games will be allowed--remains unresolved. Track officials said all they can do is push ahead with their construction schedules and hope the state Lottery Division is ready.

State officials said only two racetracks have actually begun construction. Farthest along is Vernon Downs, a Standardbred track in central New York that is planning a Nov. 1 opening day for 1,100 VLTs in a new 32,000-square-foot building, construction of which began Aug. 1.

Track spokesman Jim Moran said the building is nearly enclosed. "It's moving right along," he said.

The machines are due to arrive in mid-October.

Slightly behind Vernon Downs is Saratoga Raceway, where general manager Skip Carlson said 90% of demolition work is complete. Plans call for 24,000 square feet of gambling space and 1,300 VLTs in the track's grandstand.

Carlson expects the machines to gross $100 million a year in revenue. The facility, which will include a food court and access to the track, includes a Victorian exterior to match the town's architectural history. Partnering with the track is Delaware North, which owns Finger Lakes Race Track.

Carlson said the gaming hall would be ready to open Jan. 15. He expects more than 50 different electronic games to be available through the four vendors supplying the machines and software that were selected by the state Lottery Division.

"I'm thrilled with the progress we're making," he said.

Carlson said no decision has been made as to whether the VLTs will be operational during racing hours at the Saratoga Thoroughbred track during its summer meet.

NYRA has put its VLT plans for Aqueduct on hold while federal prosecutors decide whether to indict the racing corporation. NYRA has been under investigation because of potential wrongdoing, and its VLT partner, MGM Mirage, recently backed off until the situation is resolved. NYRA chairman Barry Schwartz couldn't be reached for comment.

At Monticello Raceway, construction plans were just submitted to the Lottery Division for a 100,000-square-foot facility that will hold 1,800 VLTs, track spokesman Charles Degliomini said. The facility could open in Febuary 2004.

Finger Lakes hopes to have its VLTs online in the first quarter of 2004, general manager Chris Riegle said. The first-floor grandstand will be renovated at a cost of $10 million.

Riegle said conservative estimates have daily average purses rising from $75,000 to about $120,000.

Riegle said because of competition from Indian casinos, the fact the western New York market has four tracks, and the relatively low percentage of revenue returned to racing, "most of the tracks are just taking a stab at it." The state would get 61% of VLT revenue, while the tracks would get 20.25% and purses 7.5% in the first three years of the program.

Officials at Buffalo Raceway, Batavia Downs, and Yonkers Raceway couldn't be reached for comment on their VLT plans.

Carolyn Hapeman, a Lottery Division spokeswoman, said there is still much work to be done, including finalizing the games tracks will be permitted to offer, and licensing and background checks on track owners, partners, and employees.

State government, looking again at multibillion-dollar deficits, is desperate for the tracks to get VLTs in operation. Still in the wings is a lawsuit brought by civic, religious, and business leaders, including the head of the Saratoga chamber of commerce, challenging the constitutionality of the VLT law.