Thoroughbred industry executives in New York are pressing ahead with an effort to build a turf course at Finger Lakes Racetrack, which has seen racing handle slide over the years amid smaller field sizes and new competition for gambling dollars upstate.
The project was noted in a state budget plan unveiled last week by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, though his fiscal proposal wasn't entirely clear how much the facility's owners might kick in to help finance a new turf course.
"The breeders have been asking for it for years. This is the closest we've ever had it coming closer to reality," said David Brown, president of the Finger Lakes Horsemen Benevolent and Protective Association.
The horsemen's group has pledged $1 million from its purses in 2019 to pay for what Brown said would be about one-fourth of the total construction costs.
In his 2018 budget proposal released last week, Cuomo said that up to $2 million "may" also come from the capital account of the track's owner, Delaware North Cos.
The turf course is a key priority for breeders, who noted nearly three-quarters of starts at Finger Lakes are New York-breds. In the past 16 years, total handle at Finger Lakes is off 28%, according to Jeffrey Cannizzo, executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc.
"To judge by all key economic indicators over the last decade, the racing program Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack is in serious jeopardy. The number of race days, total number of races, field size, and handle are on a downward trajectory," Cannizzo said.
The dirt-only track is becoming less attractive to horse owners and trainers, who take their turf horses to other states if they are unable to compete on New York Racing Association tracks. A turf course at Finger Lakes, horsemen and breeders say, would present a new opportunity for those horses to remain in New York. Cannizzo believes a turf track could boost handle at Finger Lakes by 7% or so and increase the track's field size, which in 2016 stood at only 6.69 horses per race with an average purse of $13,000.
Breeders believe the idea is one of the best long-term solutions to reverse Finger Lakes' financial issues. Cannizzo said most turf races outperform dirt track handle, and turf courses see larger field sizes by up to 30%.
"In principle, turf racing would attract larger fields and provide a better racing product that would be significantly more appealing to horseplayers. The resulting increased handle would translate into a sustainable racing program," Cannizzo said.
"This only works however if racing itself is significantly reduced at Finger Lakes to pool its purse structure and attract more horses which will yield larger fields. There is a need for B level turf racing in New York and based on the horses that ship out to find those conditions they could be offered at Finger Lakes. Realistically, these horses could help NYRA as well during the winter at Aqueduct," he added.
The number of race dates at the track, which has already declined in recent years, should be reduced further, Cannizzo said, as a way to boost what he said is the "minimal interest in its wagering product."
Brown, the horsemen's group president, said a turf course would cost an estimated $200,000 to maintain annually. He said the industry and state officials have held two recent meetings on the topic. The new Cuomo budget appears to envision Delaware North providing up to $2 million in fees it collects on its video lottery terminal operation located at the track.
"I think it will need state help, breeders' help, Delaware North's help," Brown said after noting the $1 million already pledged by the horsemen. "Hopefully, we'll get it done."
Cannizzo dismissed the idea of the breeders group helping to pay for a new turf track.
"The Breeders via the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding Fund made the decision to bail out Finger Lakes and Delaware North exactly a year ago by handing over $3 million dollars of breeders money to Finger Lakes purses," Cannizzo said. "Realistically, the breeders enabled the meets to occur status quo for 2017-18. So the $1 million dollars on the table today came out of the breeders pockets. Unfortunately, handouts cannot occur at our breeders awards expense any further as their racing product needs to pay for itself."