The problem gambling hot line used to get about two dozen calls a year from Saratoga County residents.
Then the Saratoga harness track added video lottery terminals in 2004 and became Saratoga Gaming and Raceway.
As the racino celebrates its fifth anniversary, calls each year now number about 40 for Saratoga County, said Jim Maney, executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling. More Schenectady and Albany County residents also call the hot line now than they did five years ago.
Philip Rainer, director of clinical services for Family and Children Services of the Capital Region, also has seen a rise in gambling addictions since the racino opened its doors. His organization runs the Center for Problem Gambling in Albany, which sponsors individual counseling and group sessions for male and female addicts and their significant others.
He said video lottery terminals make it easy for people to get hooked.
“There’s a particular form of pathological gambling in which people seek a level of escape from whatever concerns they’re facing,” Rainer said.
VLTs don’t require thought or strategy like betting on the horses or playing table games.
“They can continue to essentially just press a button to continue to play, so there’s very little sense of how much they’re actually spending,” he said. “It’s like shopping with a credit card. You don’t feel the expense quite as much as if you were handing out cash.”
And for those afflicted with it, gambling addiction is just as powerful as a drug or alcohol addiction, Rainer said. It can have a numbing effect or give an exciting high as the person thinks he or she might win big.
“It’s very much a double-edged sword,” he said.
Skip Carlson, Saratoga Gaming and Raceway vice president for external affairs, said the racino is committed to educating people about problem gambling.
The telephone hot line number is posted on every machine, and the racino funds gambling addiction programs through the Prevention Council.
It also has a self-exclusion policy for addicts: People who know they have a gambling problem can submit their names and be banned from the facility for a year, Carlson said.
If they try to enter, they get one warning, and the second time, they are escorted off the property.
The racino also takes part in Problem Gambling Awareness Week by allowing the Center for Problem Gambling to set up tables with information.
And policies prohibit teen use of the machines.
“Absolutely no one under 18 has access to the gaming floor, and our security staff is extremely strict in that regard,” Carlson said.
But Rainer said the real problem is not the racino itself but the state’s sanctioning gambling as a government funding source without also funding gambling addiction programs.
Anywhere there’s a state-owned racino, the areas within 50 miles of it see an increase in gambling addiction, he said.
“It makes it easier to get there. It becomes a place to go. If I have nothing to do, what are my options?” he said.
Meanwhile, legislation seeks to bring even more types of gambling into racinos.
A bill introduced by state Sen. John Bonacic would allow racinos to have video table games like roulette in addition to the machines they have now.
Last year, Saratoga Springs received $3.8 million from the VLTs at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, which made up 10 percent of the city’s operating budget. Now city officials are fighting to keep that revenue because Gov. David Paterson wants to absorb it into the state budget as he confronts the current deficit crisis.
The racino celebrated its fifth anniversary last week with giveaway promotions and food specials.
When it opened in 2004, Saratoga Gaming and Raceway was the first track in the state to offer VLTs.
Over the past five years, the racino has grown to include a 100,000-square-foot gaming floor with more than 1,700 VLTs, a nightclub, two full-service eateries including a buffet, three full-service bars, a food court, free nonalcoholic beverage service and a gift shop.
It’s now a socially acceptable attraction, a place where men can bring dates, Rainer said.
“It’s much more of a social event. You might go up not intending to gamble at all, but, ‘Gee, it’s right there.’ ”
The draw of the racino may be the highest for older adults, Rainer said.
“It’s open all the time; it’s free to get in; they have a reduced-cost lunch. When they get their Social Security check, they’ll often go there.”
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