EDITORIAL: State must step in to help resolve horsemen-casino dispute

Horses and drivers enter the final turn of the 2nd race on Sunday at Saratoga Casino and Raceway.
Horses and drivers enter the final turn of the 2nd race on Sunday at Saratoga Casino and Raceway.

There’s always been something slightly off about the state requiring casinos to subsidize harness-racing.

Other than having betting in common, there’s really no relationship between the two industries except that the state has used its authority to license casinos as leverage to keep harness racing alive.

When the economy is good and people are spending their discretionary income (we hope) at slot machines and blackjack tables, the casinos can afford to be generous to the harness racing industry through regular state-mandated subsidies.

But when economic times are bad, and times have rarely been as bad as during the covid shutdown, the state’s manipulation of the two industries becomes problematic.

Such is the case now, as the Saratoga Harness Horsepersons Association is seeking the subsidy that Rivers Casino in Schenectady is required to pay to make up for the financial problems harness racing experienced during the covid crisis.

But the casino has also been negatively affected by crisis, and continues to be. The casino generated no revenue from customers during its six-month shutdown last year. And it’s been operating for months under limited hours and 25% capacity.

It’s difficult to understand how the harness racing industry can reasonably expect its full subsidy from the casinos when the casino industry has also suffered a significant downturn in business at the same time.

The state created this problem. It’s going to have to step in and help fix it.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget includes a provision that would allow the casino not to make payments to the harness racing group until six months after the covid crisis is declared over.

The crisis could officially go on indefinitely, which could be devastating to an industry that supports everything from veterinary care to hay for the horses.

But it’s also unfair to ask the casino to make full payments when its business has taken such a hit during the covid crisis, about a 55% drop in revenue in 2020.

State Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner is trying to at least shorten the delay in when the casino must pay its subsidy.

The state should step in and help the casino make up its losses by lifting its restrictions. One bit of good news came this week when the governor lifted the limit on operating hours. But the 25% capacity limit will remain in effect. If restaurants can operate at 75% capacity, why can’t casinos?

State officials also need to intervene in the dispute by requiring both sides to come together to negotiate a fair payment schedule that begins to restore casino payments to the horsemen at a rate the casinos can reasonably afford. A lengthy extended delay in payments would be unfair and harmful to the harness industry, while an immediate restoration of the full payments would be unfair and harmful to the casinos.

The state created this mess.

It needs to facilitate a solution.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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