The horsemen's group at Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in upstate New York approved a deal Feb. 27 permitting the track to remain open this year in the face of new gambling competition that's expected to eat into its purse account funds.
The agreement, expected to be signed in the next two days by the Finger Lakes Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association and Delaware North Companies, the track’s owner, calls for racing to commence April 22 and run through Nov. 28. A total of 145 dates are scheduled, down from 155 last year.
The agreement calls for reducing the number of race dates in the beginning of the season, starting off in the first week with just two days and building up to five days by the week of May 22. At that point, the plan is to hold nine races per day, though the number could drop to eight races daily depending on the hit on revenues a new Las Vegas-style casino nearby has on the Finger Lakes racino’s revenues.
“All of this is extremely flexible,’’ David Brown, president of the horsemen’s group, said following a horsemen’s board meeting the eveing of Feb. 27.
Finger Lakes officials late Tuesday morning confirmed that it had reached a deal with the horsemen's group.
"We are pleased to have come to an agreement that sets the wheels in motion for racing to continue at Finger Lakes this spring,'' Chris Riegle, president and general manager of the track, said in a written statement.
“All parties involved worked hard and productively over a long period of time toward a reasonable solution that most importantly provides assurance for close to 1,000 people who depend directly on the local racing industry for their livelihood.''
The plan calls for racing five days per week, except during the Saratoga Thoroughbred meet in the summer when Finger Lakes will scale back to four days per week.
The agreement followed frenzied negotiations between various stakeholders, including the state government, over ways to keep racing going in the face of major competition from the opening earlier this month of del Lago Resort & Casino, a full-blown, Las Vegas-style casino situated just off the New York Thruway between Rochester and Syracuse. The casino is 29 miles away from the track and already siphoning away some of the track’s racino revenues, a portion of which goes to fund purses.
As of Feb. 28 the New York State Gaming Commission was not taking a position on the horsemen's vote Monday night.
"We understand the horsemen held a vote last night on a proposal. The commission, as the regulator, must review and approve the details of the proposal. We are awaiting those details,'' said Lee Park, a spokesman for the gaming commission.
Advisers to Gov. Andrew Cuomo just over a week ago floated a plan involving no state taxpayer money to help bailout declining purses due to the opening of the new casino. The Cuomo plan proposed money be provided to purses by Delaware North, as well as the new casino and a state breeding and development fund.
But the plan was opposed by the horsemen’s group, in part because it reduced the number of race dates from 165 in 2016 to 155 in 2017, and called for cutting by one the number of races each day to eight. Critics of the Cuomo plan said the state needed to kick in some money for the bailout effort because Albany approved the arrangement that allowed del Lago to locate so close to Finger Lakes without offering the same kind of financial protections given tracks in other areas of the state that also face new state-sanctioned casino competition.
When the number of race dates and daily races were considered, the horsemen’s group said Cuomo’s recent plan effectively cut the number of racing dates to 131 days per year, a drop of more than 20% from 2016 levels. State officials, however, insisted that taxpayer money should not be involved in any bailout of Finger Lakes racing, and that the horsemen were looking for financial “hold harmless” protections not given to other industries in the state.
“I think we’re happy to have our season begin,’’ Brown said Monday night. “There’s a lot of work that has to be done this year and next year to come up with some sort of long-term solution.’’
Part of the issue is that no one knows yet the extent of the impact from del Lago on Finger Lakes’ racino revenue. That is evident by what Brown said is Delaware North’s contribution to the new deal. The Buffalo-based company, he said, has agreed to provide $1 million to help fund expected declining purse account levels as a result of del Lago’s opening. But if the decline in revenue at Finger Lakes hits 30% or more, Brown said, Delaware North’s contribution to purses drops to $600,000.
Brown said del Lago will provide $447,000 to the new purse arrangement, while a state breeding and development fund is agreeing to give an entire $1.5 million purse enhancement fund to just Finger Lakes. The fund now provides $900,000 annually to Finger Lakes and $600,000 to races at New York Racing Association tracks. “My understanding is they will divert the whole $1.5 million during the next two years to Finger Lakes,’’ Brown said.
The horsemen’s group said the new contract is a one-year deal between owners and trainers at the upstate track and Delaware North and also includes a commitment by all sides, including the state, to perform a feasibility study of offering turf racing at the track. Such a development, Brown said, could dramatically increase the number of owners and trainers who would ship horses from other areas of the country to race at Finger Lakes.
Uncertain Monday night was precisely how many races will be held in 2017 at Finger Lakes compared with the 2016 meet. Such a number, Brown said, depends on the impact del Lago eventually has during the coming year. “The intention is to run a full meet except with fewer days,’’ Brown said.
At a minimum, though, dropping 10 days of racing means a loss of at least 90 races in 2017.
“This is kind of a two-year respite so we’ll all have the numbers and then can re-evaluate to come up with a longer-term proposal,’’ Brown said. He noted that races restricted to New York-bred horses will likely end up seeing higher purse levels as a result of the new deal, and that there will be more breeding fund money put on higher claiming races at the $8,000 and above levels.