SARATOGA SPRINGS — The Saratoga Harness Horseperson’s Association says it understands that disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have hurt Rivers Casino and Resort in Schenectady, but say it has hurt them too, with fans not allowed in the harness track stands and fewer race days.
On Tuesday, Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Saratoga Springs, and horseperson’s association representatives called on Rivers to come to the negotiating table and try to settle the issue of Rivers’ not paying a legally required quarterly payment to support harness racing purses, which have had to shrink because the roughly $1 million per quarter payments aren’t being made.
The payments, which Rivers hasn’t made since the first quarter of 2020 after COVID restrictions shut down the gaming facility, have become part of the state budget negotiations, with the Governor’s Office, the Assembly and the state Senate all currently taking different positions as budget negotiation continue toward the April 1 budget deadline.
“We think there’s a reasonable and logical solution to this issue. We just need people to come to the table,” said Joe Battaglia, secretary-treasurer of the association, who spoke at a press conference held in the Saratoga Casino Hotel restaurant that overlooks the harness track.
So far, he said, Rivers has been unwilling to negotiate, though the harness association members say continuation of the payments is essential to their survival. The harness track resumed racing for the season, but on a limited schedule — it is running only Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the afternoon, with no fans on-site and only off-premises betting — down from five nights a week, with fans and in-person wagering, in 2019.
Rivers was shut down entirely last year from mid-March until mid-September, and since then has been allowed to operate, but at only 25 percent of its capacity and limited hours, so its gaming revenue is down.
The payment for harness purses was one of the licensing requirements for Rivers in 2013, since Rivers is located within 50 miles of the Saratoga harness track VLT facility, and it was believed Rivers would take customers away from the VLT facility — indeed it has.
The issue became part of state budget negotiations after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive budget proposal that Rivers be allowed to put the payments off until six months after the COVID pandemic restrictions have ended. But in separate one-house budget bills passed last weekend, the Assembly eliminated the provision entirely, and the Senate decided payments would need to be resume three months after the pandemic ends. The differences will need to be resolved before a final state budget is passed.
“I have deep concerns with what has been proposed in the executive budget, that what has been proposed is a sweetheart deal for Rivers Casino raises the possibility that (harness racing) may not be able to happen,” said Woerner, whose 113th Assembly District includes the harness track and many of the farms and businesses that support it.
There are about 700 members of the harnessperson’s association, but thousands of others on farms also rely on it, Woerner said.
“Rivers Casino, a wealthy organization sitting on a quarter of a billion dollars of cash, if successful in getting the state to intervene on their behalf, it will put this harness track out of business, and it will put those thousands of families — mostly black and brown families — out of work,” Woerner said. “This is about what’s fair.”
The association says the casino purse payments help cover mandatory racing fees, backstretch manure removal, a minimum driver stipend for each race, and health insurance premiums for horsepersons. There are other sources of purse money as well, including about $2.5 million per quarter from the on-site VLT revenue.
“This industry crosses so many lines,” said Thomas McTygue of Saratoga Springs, a harness horse owner and association member. “Blacksmiths, veterinarians, farms — the hay, you wouldn’t believe the amount of hay. The economic impact is substantial.”
In a statement Tuesday, Rivers Casino said it needs the economic relief of not having to make the payments. It said its priority should be helping Schenectady recover from the pandemic, not the Saratoga track.
“Rivers is the only casino in NY that is required to subsidize another company’s track and it can no longer afford to do so. Our position is to protect the careers of our team members and to preserve the economic engine we have created in Schenectady — which has a poverty rate over four times that of Saratoga Springs,” the statement said.
The existing formula, Rivers said, would have resulted in the harness track receiving more money in 2020 than in 2019, despite Rivers having been shut down for six months and limits on its hours.
Ray Gillen, chairman of the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, said he supports Rivers’ position.
“Asking the casino to make payments when their ability to operate is severely restricted is simply unfair,” he said. “A common-sense approach is to suspend these payments until the COVID crisis is over. This fair solution should be embraced by regional leaders who benefit from the tax revenues, economic impact and jobs at Rivers Casino.”