Horsemen, fans idled in Vernon

Published Apr 21, 2017 at 11:44am

VERNON — Tonight was to have been the start of the 64th harness racing season at Vernon Downs. A bugler was going to play the traditional “Call To Post” and the evening was to end with a fireworks display.

Instead, horse owners, drivers and trainers, as well as racing fans, are waiting to learn when the tradition will continue. Since 1953, Vernon Downs has been the only harness racetrack in Central New York. The people whose businesses count on the track are anxious too.

Jeffrey Gural, chairman of American Racing and Entertainment, announced April 13 that he was delaying the opening day of racing amid significant financial losses due to the growing casino competition. Gural said then that the venue can begin racing once it becomes assured that relief from the state is going to be granted. He wants the state to allow Vernon Downs to keep a higher share of the revenue produced by the video lottery terminals. He loses money on live racing.

On Thursday, Gural said he was not aware of much progress on the Albany front. “Not really but I plan to go up next week and try to get the relief we need,” he said in an email when asked if he was seeing movement toward a remedy.

Gural has long argued that the state takes too much of the VLT money from racinos like Vernon Downs, which feature horse racing and video lottery terminals. Although there was hope it might, no relief made it into the recently enacted state budget.

The state Legislature ends a two-week recess on Monday. A meeting involving state lawmakers and representatives of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to discuss Vernon Downs is in the offing.

“We are working on that with the governor’s office right now,” said Assemblyman William D. Magee, D-121, Nelson, on Friday morning. His district includes Vernon Downs. He hopes there’s a meeting next week.

With racing on hold, horse trainer and driver George Harrison said, “My options are to go to other racetracks.”

He says his association with Vernon Downs spans “basically 40 years.”

“My dad raced here,” he noted. Harrison currently has three horses and is based at Vernon. He says he may race at Saratoga or even Yonkers.

He said while the practice and main tracks are open, there have been some cutbacks. As an example, Harrison said qualifying races are not being held and the starting gate is not being used so young horses can become familiar with race starts. Qualifiers are races without a purse or betting used to determine a horse’s ability and manners.

The horseman says he’s heard nothing definitive about when racing could start, observing the talk around the track is long on speculation and short on facts.

“Everybody you talk to says something different,” he said.

One of the rumors is that if there’s progress on the legislative front, racing could start on Kentucky Derby weekend. The 143rd running of the famed race is May 6.

Harrison said he wasn’t surprised by the indefinite postponement of racing.

“We’re not shocked that this is happening,” he said, pointing to the increasingly competitive casino market in New York.

“That’s what he (Gural) has been talking about,” Harrison said. “The abundance of other casinos opening up. The money is getting spread out.”

Gural said Vernon Downs has lost an average of $150,000 in revenue every month for the last five months. Two casinos started operations in February: del Lago in Seneca County and Rivers Casino and Resort in Schenectady. But the situation goes back further. The Oneida Indian Nation’s Yellow Brick Road Casino opened in in Chittenango in 2015.

Additionally, Vernon Downs has been in competition for gambling dollars with the Oneidas’ Turning Stone Resort Casino, which is just a few miles from the track, since its 1993 opening.

Plus, the competition will be ramped up another notch with the new Oneida Nation-run Point Place Casino in Bridgeport, which is scheduled to open next year.

Vernon Downs’ net win — the amount of money left in the VLTs after payouts to winners — has been steadily declined the past four years, going from $43.3 million in 2013-14 to $36.2 million in 2016-17.