The people of Saratoga Springs breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday at news of a deal to allow the New York Racing Association to run thoroughbred racing for the next 25 years.
“It’s about time. Everyone’s getting very anxious,” said Mayor Scott Johnson after hearing details on the plan from the office Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick.
Assuming the deal is finalized, horse racing fans once again will flood the streets this summer, bringing their money to spend at local businesses.
“The local people depend on the races, and I depend on the local people,” said Nicholas DiMatteo, owner of DiMatteo Custom Tailoring.
NYRA’s thoroughbred racing franchise expired at the end of last year, but the state granted a temporary extension so that racing could continue at Aqueduct, and then granted another temporary extension that is set to expire today.
NYRA officials last week sent letters to employees and trainers telling them if there was no permanent agreement by today, Aqueduct would close and many NYRA employees would be laid off until one was reached.
Although officials on all sides remained confident that an agreement would be inked before the summer track meet at Saratoga, locals still worried about the possibility of a shutdown here, which would have meant disaster for local businesses that depend on racing.
A shutdown this week at Aqueduct would have reverberated here, because horse trainers would have taken their thoroughbreds elsewhere and some might not have come back for the summer, said city Supervisor Joanne Yepsen.
Tom Federlin found himself checking news reports regularly for updates on the progress of negotiations, and writing clauses into his lease agreements that nervous tenants would get their deposits back if the track didn’t open. The owner of Racing City Realty said Tuesday about three-quarters of his business comes from leasing summer housing to track-goers.
But more than the obvious businesses — hotels, restaurants and stores — benefit when tourists flood the city in August, he pointed out.
“I think I would be hard-pressed to find any business in town that in some fashion didn’t depend in any way on the track,” Federlin said.
And local residents raise some extra cash by renting out their homes in August.
Joe Dalton, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, said he hasn’t seen enough details of the agreement to relax just yet.
“I’d like to see it signed by all parties so that it is official. Really, the devil is in the detail.”
The chamber formed Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing, a lobbying committee, more than two years ago to look out for Saratoga’s interests when state officials took to the negotiating table.
The mayor said he is satisfied with the details of the agreement, including the accountability reviews every three years.
“I came out in support of NYRA in August,” Johnson said. “I still think they’re the best operator for the racing component for this program.”
Sometimes discussing and delaying an agreement yields a better product, the retired litigator said.
Important to the city, county and school district is a clause in the final deal that the state will make payments in lieu of taxes to make up for property tax revenue that otherwise would be lost when the state assumes ownership of the track property.
Yepsen said she likes the fact that the NYRA board will have fewer political appointees than previously proposed, and more representation of horse owners and breeders.
“This has been a tricky situation and I just have been pleased that our state leaders understand how critical this is to our economy.”
Now, it’s time to get back to business, local officials said.
“Let’s put this ugliness behind us and move forward to great racing,” Johnson said.
But Federlin thinks NYRA now faces a challenge to get the word out nationwide that all is well, to counteract the uncertainty that has been circulating for months.
Even if the national press hasn’t brought the story across the country, horsemen get around and talk to other people, so people know that racing in New York was in trouble.
“I hope that NYRA sees this as something they’re going to have to advertise big time,” Federlin said.
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