Looking out at the sprawling grounds of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway today, it’s hard to imagine the standardbred racing operation was in a serious downward spiral only a decade ago.
Harness racing purses were down and attendance sparse at the track. Many questioned how much longer what was then called Saratoga Raceway could stay in business.
Then came video lottery terminal legislation at the state level, a law that was passed in 2001 and then remained in legal limbo for nearly three years. Banking that the law would eventually bring VLTs to Saratoga Springs, the harness track took a gamble and undertook a $15 million expansion to add 55,000 square feet to its existing facility and make way for the first 1,300 slot machine-style VLTs.
“We thought New York and Saratoga were worth betting on, so we took a risk even though the statute was still unsettled,” recalled James Featherstonhaugh, an Albany attorney and minority partner in the racino.
And when the VLTs were finally turned on in January 2004, success quickly followed. By the gaming facility’s second year in operation, the racino was already pumping $1 million into remodeling the facility’s dated restaurant.
Within three years of turning on the first of the gaming machines, the racino embarked upon a massive $25 million expansion of the facility. The capital project added a new buffet, a chic nightclub and space for more than 400 additional VLTs.
The impact on harness racing has been equally phenomenal. Purses that dwindled to less than $3 million for 128 days of racing before the racino opened are now averaging out at $15 million over the course of 170 days of races.
“Since opening in 2004, we have seen tremendous growth,” said Jamie Hartman, the racino’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “Our proven track record of growth, job creation and revenue generation for all our stakeholders is one we look forward to improving upon in the future.”
The success of the racino and improved fortunes of harness racing have also boosted the various farms and companies that support the standardbred industry.
Rita Cox, the racino’s vice president of marketing, estimates the racino’s impact on these businesses totals about $121.6 million — money that could have vanished had the VLT legislation not been adopted years ago.
“It’s safe to say it saved harness racing,” she said.
The racino has also pumped $652.5 million into state coffers since it opened. The facility today employs about 630 workers and funds a payroll that totaled slightly less than $20 million in 2013.
For the racino’s operators, this figure is an example of the type of money the facility keeps local. Cox said the majority of workers live around Saratoga County, meaning the racino’s payroll has a demonstrable benefit for the local economy.
“That impacts the community in a substantial way,” she said.
After 10 years of success, the racino is poised to take another step in its evolution. Starting in spring, the facility is expected to break ground on a $30 million capital project, the most ambitious expansion in the raceway’s 73-year history. The project includes a 120-room hotel, 24,000-square-foot multipurpose event space and a signature fine-dining restaurant. The new wing of the structure now under review by state officials is expected to open sometime in 2015.
“Plans are under way, and we’re going through the approval process right now,” Cox said.
The target date of completion for the expansion also coincides loosely with when Gov. Andrew Cuomo expects the first of the state’s four live table gaming facilities to start operation. Voters in November approved limited casino gambling in New York; four casinos will be built in the first round, at least one in the Capital Region.
Taking the next step
The racino’s operators have already acknowledged they will seek one of the four licenses to be handed out by a state Gaming Commission panel tasked with choosing sites for the casinos sometime this fall. The commission is expected to release its request for applications in March, with a return date in June.
Gaming experts and state legislators have suggested the racino is a logical place to land the live-table gaming facility promised to the Capital Region. But nothing in the legislation approved last summer and adopted by voters in November suggests the racino has the inside track to securing a casino.
The board is expected to chose casino sites based on a variety of factors, including the number of jobs expected to be created, the amount of capital investment planned, the level of revenue expected to be generated for the state and financing availability.
Also factoring into the decision will be the level of local support for a casino, the number of amenities it offers, how the facility will integrate with regional tourism, the experience in gaming development of the operator and the speed with which the project can be constructed.
Opponents of bringing casino gaming to Saratoga Springs argue it will upset the city’s economy by pulling business away from its vibrant downtown area and the historic Saratoga Race Course. Some fear live table games in the backyard of the thoroughbred track will have drastic consequences on the annual summer meet, while others are concerned the racino’s planned event space will ultimately compete for convention business with the Saratoga Springs City Center.
But the racino operators argue otherwise. They believe bringing casino gaming to the facility will only further diversify the offerings of the Spa City, bringing a new market of tourists to the community that wouldn’t have otherwise visited the area.
Cox said bringing live table games to the racino will also bring about 600 new workers, roughly doubling the size of its current workforce. Absent a casino license, the number of workers added as part of the planned expansion will likely be much lower.
Featherstonhaugh said the goal of the expansion is to diversify the offerings at the racino regardless of where a casino is sited. He said too much is unknown about the bidding process for the casino license to judge whether the racino will even meet the criteria for a site.
“What we do know is that no matter what anybody builds or where they build it, we know we’ll still be an entertainment destination that provides great value to people who enjoy gaming and racing,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the rest of the 21st century being as good as the first 10 years.”
Reach Gazette reporter Justin Mason at 395-3113, firstname.lastname@example.org or