New York Tracks May Face More Casino Competition

In a move with implications for the state's racing industry, the federal government has given the go-ahead for a western New York Indian tribe to open three casinos, a decision that could pave the way for three other new casinos in New York's Catskill Mountains.

The U.S. Department of Interior did not approve or reject the casino application by the Seneca Nation of Indians, which has begun work on a massive, Las Vegas-style casino in Niagara Falls and wants to build two others in the region. But in taking no formal stance, the department's action, by law, means the casino application is approved.

While on the surface, the agency's "non-approval approval'' response appears technical, lawyers for casino opponents said it could improve their chances in court of ultimately blocking the casino deal because the federal government did not take an affirmative stance on the casino application.

The Seneca plans calls for casinos located within an hour or so drive of three racetracks: Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs, both Standardbred tracks, and Finger Lakes, the region's only Thoroughbred facility.

The go-ahead by the federal government is likely to shape plans by Indian tribes to open new casinos in the Catskills. The 2001 state law permits three gambling facilities in western New York and three in the Catskills. Observers said a casino compact deal is expected soon between the state and the St. Regis Mohawk Indians, which is partnering with Park Place Entertainment on a casino at a resort hotel not far from Monticello Raceway and within an hour or so of the New York City metropolitan area, home to Aqueduct and Belmont Park and Yonkers Raceway.

The 2001 law also expanded the state's lottery and will permit most of the state's racetracks to install video lottery terminals. The VLT program, however, is facing numerous delays as the industry continues to do battle with the state over claims by racetracks that the deal will be a money-loser for them because they are being required to pick up too much of the program's costs.