Saratoga Officials Approve VLTs For Harness Track

Video lottery terminals will be coming to Saratoga Springs following approval Wednesday evening by local officials of a resolution permitting the devices at a Standardbred track located just down the road from the New York Racing Association's premier flat track.

"People are jumping out of their skin around here,'' said Skip Carlson, general manager of the Saratoga Equine Sports Center, which beat out efforts by some NYRA officials to block VLTs from coming to the upstate New York city.

After months of intense lobbying and a sharp rift between city and county interests over placement of the devices, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors overwhelmingly approved permitting VLTs for the track. Local approval was needed under an October state law, which besides authorizing VLTs at most racetracks also calls for up to six new Indian-owned casinos and expansion of the state lottery program.

NYRA Chairman Barry Schwartz had vehemently opposed the VLTs for the Standardbred track, saying they would hurt Saratoga Springs and his flat track summertime operations. But county officials dismissed the NYRA chief's concerns, and said they conflicted with NYRA's successful push to get Aqueduct included in the VLT law. Aqueduct, but not NYRA's Saratoga or Belmont tracks, are already in line to get VLTs Schwartz was unavailable for comment Wednesday evening.

"It was fine for them when they needed it at Aqueduct. It was fine for them to boost their revenue. To me, it's kind of a double-edged sword,'' Robert Hall, chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors, said of NYRA's concerns about VLTs coming to Saratoga. He voted for the measure, he said, because they will benefit the local economy with more money for everything from the tourist industry to agriculture.

Last fall, Carlson had talked of working out a schedule for the VLTs so that they did not conflict with racing at the NYRA track in late July and August. But on Wednesday, Carlson said such decisions are now a matter to be decided in the future. Still, he said, the Standardbred track and NYRA should be able to resolve any disputes over the VLTs. "We've co-existed in Saratoga... and I'm extremely confident that we can work out our differences down
the road,'' Carlson said.

While local government officials cheered the VLT approval, the devices and the other new forms of gambling permitted by the October state law are the subject of a lawsuit filed two weeks ago by religious and civic interests around the state. Among the groups seeking to overturn the law, and therefore block the VLTs and new casinos, is the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce. Critics say the devices will be detrimental to the character of Saratoga Springs, a city that abandoned casino-style gambling five decades ago.

The state Lottery Division, which is running the VLT program, expects to have the devices turned on in November. Saratoga harness officials are awaiting word whether they will be approved for 750 or 1,000 of the VLTs. Once the number is settled on, renovation of the track's entire lower grandstand will begin to convert it into a VLT parlor, Carlson said.

Officials are predicting big things, and big money, from the devices. Carlson said he's now got only 485 horses on the backstretch, but has room for 1,100. "I see a backstretch full and brimming with horses and caretakers and drivers and owners,'' he predicted. Purses, he said, will go from the $20,000 they are averaging now to $50,000 nightly in a year or so and up to $90,000 nightly three years from now. "It will completely revitalize the harness industry in Saratoga and the rest of New York state,'' he said.

The law permits tracks to keep between 12 percent and 25 percent of the VLT revenues. A portion of that, on a sliding scale over three years, must go to purses.

Carlson said he expects horse owners to come to New York from all over the Northeast lured by the higher purses VLTs will bring, a sharp turnaround from recent years when New York tracks have had trouble running full cards. He said the Saratoga track now has about 250 full and part-time workers, with another 250 or so trainers and drivers and others on the backstretch. When VLTs come, he said that number will exceed 1,000 people.

The success by the harness track in getting VLTs was not predicted by many in the racing industry. They believed the track was one of only three tracks required to get local approval for the VLTs - the others got the right automatically - as a political means of keeping the harness track from getting the devices over NYRA's opposition. But officials from surrounding communities outside Saratoga Springs were convinced the track would not survive without VLTs in a state where most other tracks will be getting the

"I think it came down to that we made a very compelling argument why Saratoga County would be better off with VLTs than it would be without Saratoga harness,'' Carlson said. "Because without VLTs there would be no Saratoga harness.''