Saratoga Springs May Be VLT Battleground

As a new, sweeping gambling package was signed into law in New York, forces were already lining up for a potentially nasty battle over whether to permit video lottery terminals in Saratoga Springs, the state's healthiest Thoroughbred community.

At issue is whether the devices should be placed at the Saratoga Equine Sports Center, the harness track located just down the road from the New York Racing Association's Saratoga racetrack. Under a request from NYRA, which opposes having VLTs at its track, Saratoga is not permitted by law to install the machines. The Saratoga harness facility can have the machines -- only if the county legislature approves of the plan.

For the Saratoga Equine Sports Center, the question is not whether the facility should be permitted to have the VLTs, but rather how many and how quickly it can get them. "I don't want to be left behind on this," said Skip Carlson, general manager of the facility.

The new law permits VLTs at NYRA's Aqueduct, but not Belmont Park, and at Finger Lakes, Monticello Raceway, Yonkers Raceway, and Vernon Downs. Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs may have them only if local lawmakers approve.

"We're against it because the entire Saratoga community has told me for years they don't want any other form of gambling up there besides racing," NYRA chairman Barry Schwartz said of the situation in Saratoga Springs. "I don't think it's a good thing for the community."

He insisted, despite some who believe NYRA is driving the debate in Saratoga, that the matter is in the hands of the Saratoga County government. "We're not the decision makers," Schwartz said.

Meanwhile, Schwartz said he is moving quickly ahead with efforts to bring VLTs to Aqueduct. He planned a trip to Woodbine in Canada in early November to assess its betting operation, and predicted the Aqueduct VLT operation will be state-of-the art.

"It's got to really look great," Schwartz said. "It's got to look like a casino with fabulous restaurants. It's got to be the kind of place you'd want to take your girlfriend or wife and really spend an afternoon."

Carlson said if the other tracks, particularly the harness facilities, get VLTs, the Saratoga harness track would be forced to close if it can't get permission to offer alternative gaming. The facility is considered by some to be the nicest harness track in the state.

"This is of paramount importance to us as a business and as an industry," he said. "It far outstrips any of our other needs. Hopefully, it can solve all of the problems that we currently have."

Carlson said purses, now averaging about $20,000 per night for 135 days of racing, could be nearly quadrupled with the introduction of VLTs. The track's 1,100 stalls, now less than half filled, would be fully occupied.

"This will put us back on a level playing field and get us back to where we were in the 1970s," Carlson said. He predicted the current average daily attendance of 700 would soar above 4,000 with what he said is a plan for an initial 1,000 VLTs.

The problem for Carlson, though, is NYRA, which, along with many members in the Saratoga community, oppose VLTs in the tourist city that, until the 1950s, had been home to casino gambling. Carlson said he believes he can get the support of the county legislature; county officials didn't return telephone calls for comment.

He said the track is pushing for the county to take up the VLT measure at its Dec. 18 meeting. Carlson also said Saratoga Equine Sports Center wants to work with NYRA.

"We would be open to any needs they had," Carlson said of NYRA. 'The last thing we want to do is anything detrimental to the flat track."

He went so far as to say the harness track would turn off the machines during Saratoga's live summer season.

The VLT issue is causing a delicate balancing act for business leaders in Saratoga Springs. The Saratoga Chamber of Commerce is looking to challenge the entire gambling package in court.

Joseph Dalton, the chamber's president who has been involved in other legal efforts to stop the spread of casino-like gambling, said he doubts the bold revenue claims predicted for the Saratoga harness track. He said he worries about the "political influence" a racetrack with VLTs would have in the city, and that new owners from outside the region, lured by the big dollars, may take over the harness track and not have the community's interests in mind.

On the other hand, Dalton said, the harness track would likely close without the devices if other tracks get them. He said he knows the issue is not easy for local lawmakers.

"I'm sure they're saying we don't want to see Saratoga Equine close, but we also recognize the social and cultural problems of VLTs," Dalton said.

No one knows when the first VLTs might be installed at New York tracks, but officials at the state Lottery Division, which will run the program, have told track representatives the machines could be ready to go within nine months.