Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady hasn't been open too long, but the race for gambling dollars is on — with nearby Saratoga Casino Hotel feeling the heat.
"We definitely view them as direct competition," said Tom Wiedmayer, general manager of the Saratoga racino. "They are going to be competing for the same gaming dollars we are in this market and hopefully, with the addition of Rivers, we'll see our regional market base grow."
Long before the Schenectady casino opened on Feb. 8, the racino 20 miles northeast in Saratoga Springs invested $40 million to expand with a 117-room hotel, a Morton's Steakhouse and a new name, leaving behind the Saratoga Casino and Raceway branding — all with the impending competition from the Schenectady casino in mind, Wiedmayer said. The newly named Saratoga Casino Hotel opened for summer 2016.
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"We will have more to come, as we have been working on our competitive strategy for some time now," Wiedmayer said.
The competition can be seen on billboards and taxicabs across the Capital Region, and in TV advertising as well. That includes a Rivers Casino billboard in Malta, on Route 9 near the Northway's Exit 13 — a short distance down the road opposite a billboard adverting the much-closer Saratoga Casino Hotel. Todd Shimkus, Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce president, noted that Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, about a two-hour Thruway drive to the west, is getting in on the game as well.
"I've seen ads for the Saratoga casino, the Schenectady casino and Turning Stone, all in Capital Region TV markets," Shimkus said. "I think all three of them are certainly trying to make sure that they're top of mind when people are thinking about where to participate in gambling as a form of entertainment."
During the week Rivers Casino opened to massive crowds, net winnings at Saratoga Casino Hotel dropped 25 percent to $2.33 million, down $805,026 from the week before, according to the state Gaming Commission.
Shimkus said he pays no attention to weekly, or even monthly, variations, however, saying the picture will be more clear after a full year of numbers to compare.
"I don't think you can make any conclusions" yet, he said, adding that Saratoga is not in its peak season, which is summertime, and Schenectady will be adding amenities such as hotel rooms and restaurants in the year ahead.
Shimkus said it's more important to pay attention to people's first impressions of the Schenectady casino and develop a market strategy from there.
"I clearly heard that parking's an issue in Schenectady compared to Saratoga. That's been one big one," he said. "We still have more slot machines or VLTs than they do — so access to machines. You sort of hear from people that have been down there, and those are two things that people have noticed — that it's a small facility and there's not enough parking. So what do we do about that?"
Shimkus said he didn't think the Schenectady and Saratoga casino markets "overlap a ton." He noted Saratoga Springs' vibrant downtown, the harness racing at the racino, and the popular and historic thoroughbred meet at Saratoga Race Course.
"We've got a product that is different, and we've got a market that is way bigger than what they've got at the casino in Schenectady, and that's where our competitive advantage lies — along with the brand name of Saratoga," he said.
He does expect people who visit the area for Saratoga Springs in the summertime to venture to Schenectady for the new casino, however.
"Because they like to bet a little money on the ponies, they also decide, 'Hey, let's check out that new casino in Schenectady,' " he said.
During opening day of harness racing's 76th season at Saratoga Casino and Hotel on Feb. 19, Bill McQuiston, the track's mutuel manager, said he didn't think the Schenectady casino impact's would reach the racing operation.
He attributed that partly to the raceway staff, which has developed relationships with many of the track's regular customers over the years. Another factor is the facility's "Saratoga Bets" platform, which allows customers to wager on races using their phones or computers, even if they aren't physically at the track.
He also pointed to the "Saratoga" brand Shimkus touted.
"You have bars in town, thoroughbred racing, harness racing, all the history around racing," he said. "It's probably the greatest racing town in the country in terms of history and opportunity.
Purses are up to about $16 million a year from about $4 million a decade ago, which has made for better racehorses and more competitive races at the venue, said John Matarazzo, director of racing operations at the raceway. He said that's due to the installation of video slots at Saratoga Casino and Hotel.
In recent years, the state Gaming Commission approved electronic table games at racinos statewide, allowing the Saratoga casino to add digital versions of the 67 table games and 15 poker tables now offered in Schenectady.
The racino's owners wanted to covert it into a full-scale casino with table games as part of the state's casino selection process, but dropped those plans in 2014 due to strong community opposition. Ultimately, Schenectady was awarded the region's only gaming license.
"I want to say we got all of the games that you have at a casino without any of the jobs," said Shimkus. "The reality is that we're going to have to fight for every hotel guest. We're going to have to fight for every person that's interested in gambling at a casino. We're going to have to fight to make sure that people still come here to bet on harness racing and thoroughbred racing this summer.
"It's more competition for us, and we're going to have to do our best to make sure that people still want to come to Saratoga for that gaming and that live racing experience that only we have."
Gazette reporter Brett Samuels contributed to this story.