Fighting over revenues and tax rates leads to delay in Vernon Downs opening.
by John Furgele
The squabbling continues and who knows if it will ever end. Vernon Downs, the venerable 7/8 mile track that is located near Utica was slated to open its 2017 season on Friday, April 21. But owner Jeffrey Gural, who also owns the Meadowlands and Tioga Downs says that the opening will be delayed because he is losing money due to new casinos that have opened in Tyre, NY and Schenectady, NY. Gural says that these casinos are impacting business at his “racino,” located at the track.
For clarity, a casino is a full-fledged gaming operation with table games like poker, blackjack and roulette. A racino is all electronic with video gaming machines, electronic poker, roulette, etc. Gural is blaming the new casinos for the loss of $150,000 in revenues per month.
We are in the new age of gambling, gambling, gambling. There are so many options for the gambler and like many other states; New York can’t seem to build new facilities fast enough. Are we surprised that Vernon Downs is losing revenue? Turning Stone is nearby, Del Lago casino is nearby, and the Oneidas (they own Turning Stone) are planning on building another casino in Bridgeport which is slated to open in 2018.
I was of the opinion that Gural could not change the opening of a harness track. The dates are set by the New York State Gaming Commission. The commission approves schedules and sets dates and in the past, has been steadfast on tracks adhering to the schedules. But Gural wants the New York State Legislature to lower the amount that Vernon Downs gives to the state to offset the loss in revenues caused by the casinos.
Gural is a mystery man. On one hand, he has been great to harness racing. On the other, he is constantly bellyaching. He supports harness racing and operates tracks at a loss. He lamented the fact that New Jersey voters turned down a referendum that would have allowed for two casinos to be built in Northern New Jersey. He wants to clean up the sport, rid it of drug cheats and wants horses to keep running rather than head to the breeding shed after their three-year old seasons. These are very commendable measures.
Gural knows that harness racing needs the prop up by either racinos or casinos and now he is complaining that these newer facilities are “killing” Vernon Downs. Can one have it both ways?
He is complaining that casinos are hurting his racino and therefore, he can’t start the Vernon Downs racing season; yet, he owns a casino himself. Tioga Downs went from a harness track to a racino and is now a full-fledged casino. The 5/8 mile facility is located in New York’s Southern Tier in Nichols, NY, right off Route 17.
I guess there are tons of people that have the discretionary incomes to support these casinos? But, how many is too many? Upstate New York is not known for being a bustling area, yet there are casinos, racinos, and horse racing tracks throughout the upstate region. For a person living in Syracuse, they can drive to Vernon Downs, Turning Stone, Del Lago, Finger Lakes and soon, the Bridgeport casino. Can all of these facilities survive? Is there enough money in people’s pockets to ensure that all of these places can turn substantial profits?
Gural is not losing money; he is just not making enough money. Like most businesspeople, he studies the spreadsheets and sees less profit, so he plays the easy card, saying he cannot open the harness track because he can’t lose more money. He says that he loses money on harness racing—which he probably does—so it doesn’t make sense to open up and lose more. But, the state required that racinos must offer harness racing, so if Gural doesn’t open the race track, will he have to shut down the racino and hotel, too?
Gural has made overtures that the future of the Meadowlands is in peril because there is no racino/casino to help him out. These threats should be taken seriously by harness racing fans, but is Gural in some ways, the boy who cries wolf? He has a casino in Nichols and he has a racino in Vernon, yet he wants more concessions from the state and says he thinks Governor Andrew Cuomo will make it happen. Is Gural really “losing” money as a corporation?
We have been down this road a million times in both harness and horse racing. Purses have gone up, but attendance at the tracks has gone down. At some tracks, the grandstands are virtually empty, but thanks to off-track betting and now, casinos/racinos, horse racing has stabilized.
Gural makes money on gambling. He owns a casino, yet he is complaining about casinos. We get his point, but once the decision was made to allow Del Lago to build in Tyre, what did Gural and his Vernon associates do? Were they proactive or did they take the wait-and-see approach? They didn’t just come to the conclusion that they are losing money at Vernon. They knew for months and only when they realized that tax concessions were not included in the fiscal year 2017 budget did they react by postponing the opening of harness racing at Vernon Downs. He thought the concessions would be included, but when they weren’t, he cried like a baby and made the announcement regarding racing at the track.
We may by dumb, but we’re not stupid. We also understand Gural and at the same time can be puzzled by him. Owning a harness racing track is not an easy business to be in. Most do not turn a profit and the ones that do are buoyed by racino/casino money. This year, Plainridge Park in Massachusetts is offering a $250,000 trot this summer. Why? Because the racino is pumping in the needed money.
Gural likes harness racing and is trying to do right by the sport. But, he knows his bread is buttered by racino/casino revenues. He is upset that New Jersey voters shot him down and now he is upset that Del Lago and Rivers are taking away monies from his racino operation at Vernon Downs.
This is a tricky triple edged sword. Harness racing seems to be sitting back and enjoying the revenues it derives from the casinos and racinos. Sitting back is not always the best thing to do. Where is the marketing? Where is the promoting of harness racing? In Gural’s case, why not market the opening of the 2017 racing season at Vernon Downs? Is the sport doing anything to bring in new fans? Why not use some of the gaming revenues to market the sport? We know that the horsemen are against it; they want every new and available cent to be used for purses and things related to the sport. But, if the sport is marketed better, handle would increase and as a result, so too would purses.
Gural committed a gaffe this week. He is playing political hardball here. He has taken his ball and has gone home. The right thing to do is to open the track this Friday and work with the New York State Legislature and Governor Cuomo to resolve the issues. The one thing you can say about Governor Cuomo is he likes wheeling and dealing. He was able to step in and resolve the dispute between the Del Lago casino and Finger Lakes Racetrack. Finger Lakes gets some additional money from Del Lago, but has to race a few more days than they probably wanted to. I’m sure Gural was all over this. He wants the same sort of deal and will probably get some relief. In return, let’s hope Governor Cuomo makes Vernon Downs race a few more days each year. Let’s not forget that before Vernon Downs got slots and a hotel it was a harness racing track. I think sometimes we do forget this very important aspect.
In the end it’s about money, always has been, always will be. We will hope for a quick resolution and a start to the 2017 racing season at Vernon Downs.
See you at the races!
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