VLT Operating Hours Still Hot Issue in New York

Racetracks in New York have launched a last-ditch effort to extend the operating hours of the state's new video lottery program. The tracks insist they need to let gamblers stay at their facilities longer if they are to turn a profit.

In addition, they are also lobbying the state Lottery Division, which will operate the VLT program when it begins sometime next year, to have the agency pick up more of the costs of local marketing efforts.

The pitch comes as the state legislature, which must approve any change in the hours for the VLTs, is rushing to wrap up its 2002 session in the next week or so. The VLT law, approved last October, permits the devices to be operated from noon until 10 p.m. weeknights, and from noon until midnight on weekends. Tracks claim they need longer hours, perhaps until 2 a.m. on weeknights, to compete with casinos in neighboring jurisdictions.

New York Racing Association chairman Barry Schwartz called the law's time rules "kind of silly."

"The purpose here is to raise money," Schwartz said. "(The state) is talking about raising lots of money. Let's do it in a way that works."

The VLTs will be permitted at two Thoroughbred tracks--Aqueduct and Finger Lakes--and at six Standardbred tracks: Batavia Downs, Buffalo Raceway, Monticello Raceway, Saratoga Equine Sports Center, Vernon Downs, and Yonkers Raceway.

The extra-hours issue is being met with disinterest so far in the state Assembly, sources said, where Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is said to be not happy about permitting Aqueduct, located in a Queens neighborhood, to be open so late for gamblers. That has led some tracks to push a plan permitting everyone but Aqueduct to remain open later.

"I'm adamantly opposed to anything that would put me at a competitive disadvantage,'' Schwartz said, claiming bettors would simply drive up the
road into Westchester County to bet at Yonkers. "It would absolutely cause Aqueduct to become a second-rate facility."

Meanwhile, off-track betting corporations are still lobbying to enact legislation that would permit them to begin simulcasting Thoroughbred races at night. Racetracks, especially harness facilities, have long opposed that plan. But OTB operators said they were cut out of the new VLT law and need the simulcasting change. In addition, they have also quietly proposed cutting their payments to racetracks--by 25% in the first year--when VLTs come on line at the racetracks.

The issues will all be resolved, one way or the other, in the final hours of the session. Racing bills will have to be on the agenda because a slew of racing laws pertaining to everything from simulcasting to tax breaks expire June 30.