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Is Racing Over at Monticello Raceway?

by John Furgele

They say they’re going to keep it open and state law says that they have to, but what is the future of Monticello Raceway, a track that has hosted daytime harness racing since 1958?

There have been some interesting things going on in Sullivan County, where the racetrack sits. In New York, there are three types of gambling dens.  First, are the Indian casinos.  These have been around the longest and because Indian tribes are sovereign and therefore self-governing, they were allowed to build and offer everything that a casino offers.  In New York, Turning Stone is the biggest.  There, you can play golf, gamble at the slots, play table games, get a massage, stay at the hotel, get a meal and so on and so forth.  These are what we call “full-scale” casinos.

The state of New York made deals with the Indian tribes.  They get a cut while the Nation runs the establishments.  In some instances, the state sold some land to the Indians so they could build a casino; this was done because, at the time, casinos were not allowed on non-Indian land per the New York State Constitution.

After 9/11, the state was looking for ways to increase revenues.  They decided to allow racinos, provided that they were built at a harness or horse racing track.  The racinos differed from standard casinos in many ways.  Racinos were not allowed to have table games — no poker, no blackjack, no roulette.

They offered video gaming machines (VGMs or electronic slots) and many did not have the luxuries like the hotels, spas and golf courses. You could play electronic blackjack, but you couldn’t sit at the table with fellow gamblers and stay or hold on 15.  Over time, some racinos did expand to offer luxuries like hotels and restaurants.

Because they were built on the grounds of racetracks, horse racing benefitted.  Every harness track in New York — Buffalo, Batavia, Vernon, Tioga, Yonkers, Saratoga and Monticello — built racinos.  Finger Lakes, a thoroughbred racetrack, also built one.

People would come in and play those machines for hours on end and, because they were on the grounds of the tracks, horse racing got a slice of those revenues.  As a result, purses increased and, in reality, these racinos probably saved the harness racing industry.

New York decided that gambling was a good way to make some money, so, eventually, they allowed casinos in non-Indian parts of the state.  The Constitution was amended, RFPs (requests for proposals) were put out and bids came in.  The state awarded casinos to Schenectady, Tyre, Tioga, Monticello and Buffalo — and could award two more over time.

Now that you have a brief history, let’s get back to Monticello.  Monticello had a racino, but the company that operates it and the racetrack was awarded a casino.  At first, that company, Empire Resorts, stated that they would keep the racino intact on the Monticello Raceway grounds, while opening a full-scale casino six miles away. However, Empire soon realized that both a racino and casino that close was bad business.

In February, it was announced that the Monticello Raceway racino would close in April, but harness racing would remain for the “foreseeable future.”  Harness racing purses are tied to casino revenues.  The more the racino makes, the higher the purses, which are based on percentages and formulas set by people much brighter than me.  The Empire City Casino sits at Yonkers Raceway.  It does very well and, as a result, Yonkers Raceway offers the best purses in the land.  The Open Handicaps run for $44,000 with Preferreds offering $35,000.

Monticello seems to be in peril.  State law says that in order to have a racino, you have to have horse racing, yet Monticello closed their racino so the casino could benefit.  Does that still count?  Does this still comply with New York State law?  There are many that believe that Empire Resorts ultimate goal is to rid themselves of harness racing, something that they deny — for now.

If you’ve ever been to Monticello, you know it’s a dump.  The grandstand is closed; the simulcast room small; and there are portable bleachers that use space heaters in wintertime.  Like most racetracks, it relies on off-track betting — so why offer amenities?  There was little money put into the raceway when a racino was there. Why would that change now?

The one thing Monticello does offer is daytime harness racing action.  Bettors looking for that gambling fix know that Monticello is there Monday-Thursday for 207 days each year.  There are no breaks — it’s 52 weeks.  And because of that consistency, handle is better than many tracks, including Yonkers, which offers better purses, drivers and horses.

If you follow the racing cards at Monticello, there is cause for concern.  In recent weeks, most days have offered seven race cards.  I don’t know what the right number is, but it has to be more than seven. In my mind, 10 should be the minimum.  The one advantage harness racing has always had over thoroughbred racing is that they could offer more races each day.  A classic thoroughbred card would offer nine races while harness cards ranged from 12 to 14 and, in the case of Northfield Park, 16.

In four days, Monticello offers just 28 races. Compare that to Northfield, which offers 32 races in two days.  In addition, purses have decreased.  Monticello was never offering great money, but when the racino was there, the features ranged from $5,500 to $6,100; now, they sit at $4,900 with some races offering just $2,100.

With the racino closed, there are 1,100 VGMs sitting in storage.  There are various options being floated.  Catskill OTB wants to buy them and set them up in the region; in fact, there’s a state bill that would allow Catskill OTB to set them up at three locations.

There is also talk of Catskill OTB taking over Monticello Raceway, which would likely be good for those who think the track could be closed.  In Western New York, Western Region OTB bought Batavia Downs and that track went from nearly closing to being a fairly solid ground.

Empire Resorts has suggested opening a VGM parlor in Orange County.  The hope is that by relocating the VGMs, those revenues would help keep harness racing afloat at Monticello.  As of now, it is uncertain if there is a deal between the casino and the raceway.  In fact, the casino reported a loss of $138.7 million in 2018.  We all know there is clever accounting involved here, so we might never know how much loss is genuine.  But, for those who warned that too many casinos would be a problem, this certainly provides some fodder.

When you think about it, you have to wonder how much is too much.  And if sports betting ever comes to fruition in the Empire State, what will the impact be on harness racing?

Monticello has served its patrons well.  There has always been a solid colony of drivers, trainers and horses, but with the racino gone and very few people attending the races, it looks and feels like a ghost town.

The state will not allow Empire Resorts to shut down racing.  There are contracts and laws in place.  But, there could be changes — less days of racing, a shorter season and perhaps more.

The good thing is that there are some options.  I’m not sure which one is best.  If Empire Resorts moved the VGMs to Orange County and shared some of those revenues with the raceway that would certainly help.  If Catskill OTB bought the track and set up the VGMs in the region, that could help, too.  My gut says Empire Resorts wants out of harness racing, but they can’t just abandon the sport; there has to be a succession plan of some sort that satisfies many sides — the state, the horsemen and local officials.

I’ve always enjoyed watching racing from Monticello.  The horses are true grinders; they stay on the grounds and they race all year from the snow in January to the searing heat in July.  If you’re looking for a daytime harness racing fix, Monticello has always delivered.  But something has to be done here.  The days of drawing 10,000 fans are over.

For now, there is racing and let’s hope we will be saying that for years to come.

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