There’s a calm, collected mood that seems to tame the chaotic atmosphere of the paddock area on race night at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway.
The nonstop hustle of trainers and grooms, standardbreds and drivers runs like an intricately choreographed dance. But the dancers are 1,200-pound animals and the crews rapidly outfitting them with sulkies.
Like other veteran drivers, Mickey McGivern stays calm, poised behind a line of teams waiting to advance toward the illuminated half-mile oval for the seventh race. With 36 years of experience at the harness track and nearly a lifetime around standardbreds, racing is second nature to him.
The sport has evolved since he first started training and driving during the late 1970s. Gone are the days of racing before packed houses. Gone are the days when harness racing ruled supreme.
“We have to go back to promoting it as a sport,” he said, leaning an arm on his racing sulky. “I think the big key is to market it as a sport, not just a gambling product.”
The harness racing industry in New York is facing a new challenge. In less than two years, a destination resort casino offering live table games will open somewhere within a 55-mile radius of where Saratoga Casino and Raceway operates 1,782 video lottery terminals. Those VLTs have served to inflate purses, keeping harness racing viable.
The state’s gaming legislation approved by voters in November will maintain the track’s purses at the 2013 levels, adjusted for inflation. But there’s a growing concern the state Legislature could one day change this provision or that raceway operators could eliminate other perks they now provide the horsemen.
How the new casinos will affect harness racing is unknown, said Jeff Cantine, who owns three horses with his wife, Jackie, on their farm in Ballston Spa.
“I don’t think anybody likes uncertainty and that’s all anyone is feeling around here right now,” he said.
Whole new ballgame
Once the only gaming facility in the Capital Region, Saratoga Casino and Raceway, known as a “racino,” will soon be up against some tough competition. New casinos — nearby and in the state’s Southern Tier and Catskill regions — will undoubtedly pull gamblers from Saratoga Springs.
Operators of the racino intend to make a bid for two of the four casino licenses being offered, but not in Saratoga Springs. At the harness track itself, they are planning a $30 million expansion that would bring a 108-room hotel and 2,000-seat event center to an area west of the track.
The expansion would add 134,000 square feet to the complex off Jefferson Street, nearly doubling its size. The project also would build over what is now a practice track for horseman and further obscure the races few bettors seem to find through the maze of VLTs.
Still, the expansion project is supported by the Saratoga Harness Horseperson’s Association, a 1,200-member organization of owners, breeders, trainers and drivers that promotes local harness racing.
The racino boards roughly 450 horses year-round in barns dotting the track’s backstretch. Owners are allowed to use the barns at no cost, but horses pump money into businesses and farms throughout Saratoga and surrounding counties. Each horse costs about $12,000 annually to support, money spent on grain and hay, bedding for their stalls, veterinary care and a host of other expenses associated with the equine industry.
“There is spin-off business, and it helps everyone,” said Tom McTygue, a member of the Horseperson’s Association’s Board of Directors.
But not everyone is aware of that business. In fact, harness racing is an afterthought even for most visitors to the racino,
The track is open most of the year, closing only for a short time between January and February. There is no admission charge, but the grandstand is seldom full during races.
Crowds come for the fireworks the day before the Fourth of July and on days when there are major thoroughbred stakes elsewhere, like the Kentucky Derby.
For the casino part of the racino, it’s a different story. Good crowds show up most days, and horsemen say there are racino patrons who don’t even know the track exists, despite the word “raceway” over the front entrance.
But it’s the VLT revenue that keeps the state’s harness racing industry afloat.
Buying back in
Interest in harness racing dropped precipitously in the late 1970s, with the adoption of Off-Track Betting and simulcast legislation. OTB parlors pulled patrons away from tracks and drained purses, leaving only the most stubborn horsemen racing and competing for lower and lower winnings.
At the darkest hour, horsemen were running in 10 races with a total purse of about $20,000. Even some top races were paying out less than $1,000.
“Everybody got out,” said Mark Whitcroft, a veteran of more than three decades at the harness track. “Only the tough survived.”
VLT legislation and the subsequent arrival of the machines — also called video slot machines — in 2004 changed everything. The law allocated a small percentage of every VLT wager to harness track purses and the Agriculture & New York State Horse Breeding Development Fund, a program aimed at bolstering the quality of the state’s standardbreds.
Purses at the track in Saratoga Springs have since ballooned to an average of $90,000 per night. The minimum purse for a single race is now $4,000.
Success has brought a new set of issues to the backstrech stables — more competition. Now, marginal trotters have a tougher time establishing themselves in the sport and local owners find themselves facing stronger competition rolling in from abroad.
“It’s gotten a lot tougher,” said Whitcroft, who operates a stable of 10 horses at the track and a farm in Stillwater. “But again, it’s the tough [who] survive.”
Of course, it’s impossible to work in the backstretch without being tough. Horsemen put in upwards of 18 hours a day, exercising, grooming and feeding their horses, mucking out stalls and maintaining the intricate tack and equipment used during races.
This routine gets even more arduous on racing days, Wednesday through Sunday. And it’s a workload that is divided among only a handful of people — a trainer, a driver and possibly a groom.
“There’s a lot of work involved here,” said Andrew Byler, an Amish man from Pennsylvania who operates a stable of 10 horses and a barn in Northumberland with only his wife, Deborah Ann. “But it’s something we love doing.”
Show of support
There’s no way of knowing how the state-licensed casinos will impact harness racing, but the general consensus is that outcome won’t be good. If the casinos start pulling money away from the operation in Saratoga Springs, some fear the racino operators will look to trim costs in whatever way they can — namely at the track that costs them millions of dollars in upkeep each year.
“They’re paying the electric bill. They’re paying the water bill. If they start losing revenue, where do you think they’re going to make the cuts?” McTygue asked “If they see they are down, things could drop off dramatically.”
And the horsemen’s contract with the racino operators ends in 2015. The first of the state-licensed casinos are due to come online in 2016.
John Stark Jr. is among those who sees a grim future. The trainer, owner and driver, who operates a 62-acre standardbred farm and training center in the town of Saratoga, fears the establishment of a casino nearby — whether owned by the racino operators or another gaming company — will ultimately pull the focus away from harness racing.
“I don’t think their hearts are into it,” he said of the operators. “They know the money is made from the slots.”
Last week, the horsemen offered support for the racino’s expansion project in exchange for year-round use of the main track for practicing. The racino operators also agreed to overhaul a sandy loop through the backstretch so that it’s closer to the quality of the regular track.
The gaming legislation ensures the racino will have a guaranteed annual purse of at least $13.2 million — the amount won in 2013. Any dip in this sum must be compensated by the operator of the casino cited in the Capital Region.
The voter-approved law can be changed by an act of the state Legislature, and some fear casino lobbyists will help eliminate the provision protecting purses.
“I think everyone is worried right now,” trainer Frank Salin said, “but I don’t think they have any comprehension of what they stand to lose.”