VLTs in Saratoga Springs Move Step Closer to Reality

Video lottery terminals, despite the objection of the New York Racing Association, have taken a key step closer to coming to a Saratoga Springs (New York) harness track.

A five-member panel of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved permitting the slot-like devices at the Saratoga Equine Sports Center, which is located just down the road from NYRA's Thoroughbred track. A mid-January vote by the full board has been put off for final passage, now tentatively scheduled for February 13. But all participants in the debate now expect the VLTs to get the board's needed approval at that date.

County officials have said they see little choice but to approve the devices because without them the Saratoga harness facility would likely have to shut down.

The VLTs are being permitted in New York under legislation approved in October state lawmakers desperate to raise some cash for the state budget in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorists attacks. At a minimum, the attacks gave the political cover necessary for lawmakers and the Pataki administration to advance the VLT measure, which has languished in one form or another for a decade at the state Capitol.

The new law permits the machines at Aqueduct, but not Belmont, as well as Finger Lakes Racetrack and the harness facilities Vernon Downs, Monticello and Yonkers. NYRA opposed placement of the devices at its own Saratoga facility, in part, because some officials never believed the nearby harness track would never get permission to place the machines there. The law requires the Saratoga harness track, as well Batavia Downs and Buffalo Raceway, to get the permission of local county legislatures to get the VLTs.

In the Saratoga area, the issue has sharply split some communities, with many business and civic leaders in Saratoga Springs fighting the devices while officials from surrounding towns see the machines as a boon to the local economy. Local officials were blocked by state law from trying to extract some of the track's VLT proceeds in a revenue sharing scheme. By law, 90% of VLT wagers must be returned as winnings. At least 60% of the remaining money goes to the state. Tracks, who have been complaining the law is a bad financial deal for them, will get between 12% and 25% of the after winnings money, and must share up to 45% with horsemen.

The five member panel that gave a needed first approval to VLTs in Saratoga was composed of members who said they previously had no opinion on the VLT matter. A public hearing on the matter in Saratoga is scheduled for January 23 before the full board's February vote. State officials have told track executives they don't expect the VLT program to begin before November. A lawsuit is also pending by a host of groups, including Saratoga business interests, claiming the devices violate the state constitution.