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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Monticello Slots Go Offstride

- While NYRA and New York’s thoroughbred horsemen await the arrival of slots at Aqueduct, the money continues to flow at upstate harness tracks in Saratoga and Monticello, and in a big way. At Saratoga Harness, the handle in 2005 was a mind-boggling $2 billion, which is more than the Gross Domestic Product of some small nations (I looked it up). That’s double the handle in 2004. State law requires that at least 90% be returned to players in winnings, and the figure at Saratoga has been reported to be 92%. In 2004, the $1 billion generated $82 million for the New York State Lottery, which oversees gaming operations. Of that, 61 percent, or $50 million, supported state education. So the 2005 figures are presumably roughly double those.

Horsemen have also reaped the benefits.

Purses, the amount paid to race winners, were just under $4 million in 2003, before gaming machines were introduced. In 2005, purses more than tripled, to $13 million.

The raceway had its first million-dollar driver last year as Fern Paquet Jr. won 316 races with purses totaling $1,195,846. Two others, Dan Cappello Jr. and Brian Cross, each topped the $900,000 mark.

In 2003, Cappello was the track's leading driver with winnings of $491,397. [The Saratogian]
However, not everyone there is happy; the increased purses, as well as the closure of Yonkers, has attracted more horses and thus some of the smaller stables have been cut back. Track GM George Carlson said, “ It's supply and demand. Right now there's an oversupply of horses for the number of tracks in New York state.”

But Saratoga is a paradise for all right now compared to the situation at Monticello, where horsemen and management are engaged in an all-out brawl over slots revenue that has left both sides battered and bloodied. The Monticello Harness Horsemen’s Association (MHHA), which has been without a contract for a year and a half, claims that the track has reneged on an agreement to boost their share of VLT money to 9.25% of revenue from the current 7.5%. [The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen Association negotiated with NYRA a split of 7.5% of Aqueduct casino revenues for the purse account, increasing to 7.75% in the 4th year.] To earn that boost, MHHA claims that they lived up to their obligation of helping to successfully lobby Albany for an increase in the track's share of the money from 29% to as much as 40%.

There’s $3-4 million presently at stake, and in retaliation, the horsemen withheld their permission for Monticello races to be simulcast out-of-state. An average Monday during the winter season can bring in as much as $750,000 in bets... But without the signal, that could drop to as low as $250,000. [Record Online] In response, management has taken the draconian step of slashing purses in half.

And management wasn’t quite done. In December, the horsemen filed a lawsuit against the track, claiming that the “milkshake” tests being conducted there were faulty and unfair.
"There are drivers escaping who should be caught and people who are being told they're violating the levels and they're not," Joe Faraldo, the horsemen's attorney, said. "We don't mind them doing it, but they're not doing it properly."

The suit alleges that the track's method of testing lacks scientific basis and is "otherwise wholly inaccurate for the purpose for which management uses it."

The track's management said the suit's arguments were way off base, and only came to light after several horsemen were fined for violations.

"This test is an established benchmark," said Shawn Wiles, general manager of racing and facilities director at the track. "The state has had no complaints, and we've been doing the same test for years." [Record Online]
Upon the cutoff of the simulcast signal, the track publicized the lawsuit. In the fine tradition of 21st century American politics, they framed it in a wholly different way in order to cast the horsemen in the worst possible light, calling it an “Appalling and shameful action that could seriously undermine the credibility of racing at Monticello Raceway. No one person or organization should want to stop testing for performance enhancing substances.” []

So even the bonanza of slots money is not a guarantee of utopia. The racino at Monticello has benefited everyone involved, except of course those gamblers who cannot resist the urge to lose money they cannot afford to. Columnist Kevin Gleason of the Times Herald-Record notes:
The racino is making money. Horsemen are making more than they have ever made. Greg Merton just became the first driver in Monticello's 48-year history to top $1 million in purses in a year. A bit later Stephane Bouchard became the second such driver. Art Green set a track record for trainers with $571,098 in purses.

Get this: In a sport dying a slow death, former horse owners were getting back into the business. That's like the hula hoop coming back.
Now, the purses and handle have been slashed and both sides are suffering; and the track points out that the damage being done from the simulcasting cutoff may be difficult to undo.
"These OTBs aren't sitting around hunting for harness racing," said Charles Degliomini, vice president of Empire Resorts, which owns the struggling Raceway. "They just stop the signal and pick up something else, so when we come back, the OTBs may take a pass."