MGM Grand Buys Yonkers Raceway

When I was kid in the 1970s and 80s, pot smoking was frowned upon; those that did it, had to sneak away to do so.  The funny part was when they came back and tried to act like they weren’t stoned.  We knew better, but their “half-baked” attempt to conceal it was more because of the law, rather than an act.  Now, it is legal in many states and considered by some to be safer than drinking.

Gambling was also frowned upon.

Those that wanted to partake in the action had to find a bookie to get that line of credit.  It was okay to buy lottery tickets, play the ponies and visit casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but making bets on sports outside Nevada was illegal. If you wanted to make that big bet on the big game, you had to find the local tavern and “the guy” that would take you on as a customer.

Things have changed.

Today, casinos exist everywhere.  Some are attached to racetracks, while others are not.  Soon, there will be places where customers can make bets on the NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA, NFL and who knows what else.  The NCAA, which said it would not award championships to states that backed gambling, has now changed its tune. How long before Las Vegas hosts the Final Four, Frozen Four and the CFP championship game?

When the Supreme Court talks, everybody listens.

The time for positioning is now — and MGM Resorts fired a salvo when it was announced that they were buying Empire City Casino and Yonkers Raceway from the Rooney family for the staggering price of $850 million.

MGM Grand (photo via mgmgrand.com).

MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (photo via mgmgrand.com).

This will give MGM the chance to build a casino empire in the Empire State.  In addition to the 5,222 video gaming machines, table games could be allowed there as well as a sports book.  Harness racing should be safe as long as a New York State law that says that casinos have to help supplement horse and harness racing remains intact.  The law, which was enacted after 9/11, expires in 2019, but most think it will be extended.

There are some interesting things that could develop.  In New York, all the racinos (no table games) were built at existing horse and harness tracks.  There are seven harness tracks in New York and all of them have VGMs.  There are four thoroughbred tracks in New York; Aqueduct and Finger Lakes have VGMs, while Belmont and Saratoga do not.

If the law is changed, some fear MGM will tear down the harness track to expand its gambling facility.  Others think that won’t happen, while others have talked about MGM and NYRA partnering to build a harness track on the Belmont Park grounds that would be supplemented by casino revenues from the expanded Yonkers facility.

Speculation has run rampant.  I wrote about this back in January when the idea was being floated by those in the know. Joe Faraldo is the president of the Standardbred Owners of New York and he seems to be pushing this idea the most.  He sees a one-mile oval with lights that would be operated by MGM, with casino revenues, in partnership with the NYRA.

As for NYRA, its CEO is Chris Kay and he has shown no interest in the project.  As we know, there will be a ton of building going on in Elmont.  The New York Islanders are coming and they plan on building their arena as well as restaurants, a hotel, a movie theater and stores.  Does a harness racing track fit in that portfolio?

Yonkers Raceway sits on prime land.  It is easy to see a push for replacing the track with a shiny new sports book, complete with roulette, poker, blackjack and all the other table games that gamblers fancy.  Throw in a sports book and out go the old horse players, replaced by younger folks with discretionary incomes.

Yonkers has hosted harness racing since 1899.  It is the home to several big races — the International Trot, the Messenger, Yonkers Trot, Rooney, Lismore and Levy — and the possibility of seeing that go away is frightening to harness racing fans like me. Faraldo says that won’t happen, but until an agreement is in place, nothing is certain.

There are others that say harness racing should not be propped up by the state and casino revenues.  They believe that if an industry can’t make it in a free-enterprise society, then it should go the way of the dinosaur.  In the mid-1990s, it looked like the Rooney family was going to close the track, but like Buffalo, Batavia, Monticello, Saratoga, Vernon and Tioga, they were saved by having VGMs on the premises.

On Saturday, Buffalo Raceway had $96,300 in purses with total handle slightly over $152,000 — and probably 95 percent of that was wagered off-track. So, without gaming revenue, Buffalo Raceway would be gone.

Some wouldn’t mind that, but supporters point out that the horse racing industry employs thousands.  It’s like closing General Motors — not only are you laying off thousands of plant workers, but what about those little companies that made money by doing things for and related to General Motors?

The MGM deal won’t be official until the first quarter of 2019, so speculation will run wild in the months leading up to the official takeover.  MGM could make harness racing people relax by making a statement that harness racing will be a big part of its future.   We saw that at Hoosier Park when Caesar’s bought the facility from Centaur and announced that they were excited to have harness racing as part of their suite of entertainment options.

Faraldo doesn’t seemed worried and, right now, neither am I, but as we all know, time will tell.

John Furgele
As a kid growing up in the Buffalo suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the radio was one of John Furgele’s best friends. In the evenings, he used to listen to a show on WBEN radio called “Free Form Sports,” hosted by Buffalo broadcast legend Stan Barron. The show ran weeknights from 6 to 11 pm and featured every kind of sport you could imagine. One minute, Mr. Barron was interviewing a Buffalo Sabres player; the next, he was giving high school field hockey scores.

But there was always one thing that caught John’s ear. During those five hours, Barron would give the results from Western New York’s two harness racing tracks — Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. This is where John learned what exactas, quinellas, trifectas and daily doubles were all about. From then on, he always paid attention to harness racing, and when Niatross (a legendary Western New York horse) hit the scene in 1979, his interest began to blossom.

John believes harness racing is a sport that has the potential to grow and he will explore ways to get that done via marketing, promotion and, above all, the races themselves.

When he’s not watching races, John is busy with his family and his job in sales. Like the pacers and trotters, he does a little running himself and you’ll occasionally find him “going to post” in a local 5K race.

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