SARATOGA SPRINGS — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s suggestion over the weekend that there will soon be an update on the state casino shutdown was tantalizing both for casino operators and harness horse owners.
The Saratoga Harness Horsepersons Association says it may need to cut short its season at Saratoga Casino Hotel, as the prize money its members compete for and pay their bills with is running out.
Rivers Casino and Resort, deprived of its revenue stream, hasn’t been paying into the fund that supports those prizes. Rivers is required to make the payments each year, but not required to break them into quarterly installments, as it had been.
“Almost $700,000 they owe us,” SHHA President Thomas McTygue said. "We certainly could use some of that funding.”
He said the horse owners normally would race into December at Saratoga.
“At this point we’ve got enough to get us through to Oct. 12,” he said. “If we can get the casinos open there’s a chance we can continue.”
Harness horse owners have been getting a cut of gambling revenue for years. The modern era of non-Indian gambling in New York began with racinos — video lottery casinos co-located with harness tracks, which as an industry were struggling.
A portion of the video lottery terminal revenue was earmarked for harness racing purses.
Later, the state law authorizing a handful of casinos on non-Indian land included a provision that the new casinos would have to pay to keep harness track purses in their region at inflation-adjusted 2013 levels.
This was on the expectation that racinos would lose business to their new competitors. And in fact, Saratoga Casino Hotel’s gambling revenue has been down sharply since Rivers opened 20 miles away in early 2017.
However, the legislation calls for annual payments by casinos — millions of dollars a year in the case of Rivers — not quarterly payments.
Rivers — which has seen $0 played in its slot machines since March 15, compared with more than $600 million in the same period of 2019 — decided to stop the voluntary quarterly payments amid the shutdown.
The SHHA asked the state Gaming Commission to intervene on its behalf and push Rivers back to quarterly, and the commission declined, saying no rules are being broken.
“We’re quite surprised at that,” McTygue said. “They’ve moderated before in the past.”
He said he’s not trying to milk Rivers when it is idle — Rivers should have long since set aside the funds SHHA seeks.
“The money that we’re asking for is what they’ve already been paid — we’re not asking for money from when they were shut down,” he added.
McTygue said the purse money pays for expenses the horse owners incur, including feed, veterinary care and grooms’ salaries.
The SHHA donated $200,000 when harness racing was suspended altogether, to help horse owners meet these expenses. It’s also getting payments from OTB, though these are payments that were due last year, McTygue said.
Purses for race winners that would normally be in the $15,000 to $18,000 range are now half as much, he said, and the smallest purses are running around $2,500.
Saratoga Casino Hotel did not return a request for comment on the potential early end to its 79th season of live racing, which is being run without fans as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.
Rivers didn’t directly address the SHHA’s predicament. It said in a prepared statement:
“Rivers Casino & Resort Schenectady is solely focused on reopening and preventing the permanent layoffs of our more than 1,000 currently furloughed team members.”
Rivers is also required to make annual payments to a horse breeding development fund, also on an annual basis.
Casino gambling is one of the last industries still shut down in New York state because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that is because they are higher-risk operations that are not essential to everyday life or the functioning of society.
Workers at Rivers and other casinos rallied late last month, saying they need their jobs.
McTygue said reopening casinos would be a good thing.
“I know they’re ready here,” he said. “The Indians are running out there at Turning Stone and I hear they’re doing very well.”