New York Horse Interests Looking at VLTs For Tracks

An unusual meeting of the usually fractious factions in New York's racing industry quietly met near the state Capitol recently to explore whether a renewed effort should commence to bring video lottery terminals to racetracks.

The session, called by a Standardbred breeders group, led to the creation of a committee of the often-competing interests to determine if they can get together to end years of stalemate over the VLT issue.

Harness tracks, several of which are barely hanging on as the quality and quantity of racing falls off at their facilities, have been the leading the push for VLTs. But they have run into strong opposition by politically powerful off-track betting corporations and the New York Racing Association.

"There is interest by some entities more than others," Bruce Hamilton, executive secretary of the Harness Horse Breeders of New York State, said when asked what came out of the meeting. He said the session was called after a state legislator, whom he did not name, requested that the sides try to reach some sort of consensus on the issue.

Some VLT proponents point to the recent elevation of Barry Schwartz as NYRA's new chairman as an opening on the issue gambling issue. Schwartz, some believe, may be more philosophically open to the VLT idea than his predecessor, Kenneth Noe.

Schwartz said he could not offer a NYRA position on the issue since it has not come up for consideration recently before the NYRA board. In the past, he acknowledged, there has been "a lot of mixed sentiment" by the board on the VLT issue. "Clearly, we've always been against it for Saratoga," he said.

But Schwartz, in expressing what he said was his personal opinion on the matter, said: "If the state were to legalize slot machines, I think that we would want to be included. We would want to have them at Aqueduct, which would be a phenomenal facility for NYRA and the state."

Despite concerns in some sectors about VLTs and slots at tracks taking away from pari-mutuel handle, Schwartz said he looks to the success of Woodbine in Canada as evidence such fears are unwarranted.

"I feel just as strongly that we wouldn't want them for Saratoga," he said. "There's no demand for them there, and no place for them there." As for Belmont Park, he said: "That's a question mark."

Hamilton said the need for VLTs is more urgent for the state's declining harness industry. Currently, there are five operating harness tracks -- Yonkers Raceway, Monticello Raceway, Saratoga Equine Sports Center, Vernon Downs, and Buffalo Raceway.

"We can't draw horses because we can't draw purses, and we can't draw purses because we can't draw horses," he said.

Hamilton said he draws some hope on the VLT issue after a meeting in which all sides of the industry were represented to discuss some direction on the matter -- a rarity in the New York racing community.

"It was gratifying that we could see the entire horse racing industry sit down and discuss issues," he said.