Too Easy To Cancel?

The effort made by Yonkers and Monticello to race last week was “less than extraordinary.”

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Winter is unpredictable. There are givens to be sure; most days are going to be cold and there is always a chance of snow. Last week, a major snowstorm blanketed the Northeast with some places getting a foot or more of the white stuff.

If you enjoy harness racing, anytime snow falls, you wonder what that means for a racetrack? Will they cancel racing? Will they clear the snow and get the track ready; or more importantly, will they try to get the track ready.

Yonkers and Monticello are New York’s weekday tracks. Monticello races in the afternoons Monday through Thursday while Yonkers now races in the evenings Monday through Friday.

When the storm hit, you knew that Monday racing would be cancelled, and it was, at both tracks. But then, both tracks cancelled on Tuesday and then Wednesday and yes, also on Thursday. Moreover, it didn’t look like Yonkers even tried to start clearing the snow until late Wednesday afternoon.

Both facilities make most of their monies via their casinos and there are some that believe if they had their way, they’d rid themselves of harness racing and focus solely on poker, blackjack and roulette to make their profits.

One of the worst-kept secrets is the vision for Yonkers. Owned by MGM, the facility will like to receive a full-scale casino license if and when the state of New York awards more of them. If that happens, they can have real poker, real craps, and real blackjack games played on the Empire City Casino grounds (under current law, they can’t have table games).

On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. The casino, located just north of The Bronx and right off Interstate 87 (the Major Deegan for the locals), does very well and with table games added to the mix, revenues would increase.

MGM would love to get that license, and expand the casino and the best way to do that would be to rid itself of the harness track and use that “precious space for perhaps a hotel or more gaming.

Of course, things are never easy in the state of the New York. Yonkers and MGM can’t just rid itself of harness racing unless the laws are changed. When Yonkers became a racino in the early 2000s, the stipulation was that racing had to continue. The same went for Monticello, Buffalo, Batavia, Saratoga, Vernon and Tioga—no racing, no racino.

There are lots of stories out there regarding Yonkers. One is that they would move harness racing so they could expand the casino. There was talk that MGM would build a one mile oval on the Belmont Park grounds and have what some called Yonkers Raceway at Belmont Park.

That would serve two purposes; if MGM gets a full casino license, they could expand and they could still sponsor/run harness racing at the Belmont Park venue which would keep them in good standing with New York State government.

This would free up land to expand their casino, but they would still be in the harness racing game with the sport benefitting more from it. A full-scale casino will bring in more revenue and because state law requires that a certain percentage of casino revenues must go to harness racing, purses at a one mile YR@BP could soar, as would handle.

It’s only 22 miles from Yonkers in Westchester County to Belmont Park, which sits on the Queens/Long Island border, but those of course, are “New York miles.” But most do not attend harness racing in person. It’s more important to have an HD signal so those that bet can watch from the PC or phone at home.

The big question is—how much does MGM care about harness racing? If you looked at pictures that were posted on social media this week, the conclusion of “not much,” could have been deduced.

Joe Faraldo is the president of the Standardbred Owners of New York and he didn’t hold back. He posted pictures of the untouched snow drifts and cautioned New York State government to think long and hard before granting MGM a full-scale casino license.

It is peculiar. Since casinos were adjoined to race tracks, the decision to cancel a day of racing has been quick and easy. Aqueduct used to race through “everything.” Now, if the temps dip below 20 degrees, racing is often cancelled.

The same goes true for harness racing. If Yonkers and Monticello were reliant on harness racing monies, you know plows would have been on site and racing would have resumed by Tuesday. But with casino monies rolling in (even in a pandemic), it is much easier to cancel racing and wait for the snow to stop.

The Meadowlands, which does not have a casino, had their track ready for training and for Friday night racing, as did Freehold Raceway in Central New Jersey.

On the other hand, let’s defend Yonkers. After acquiring the facility from the Rooney family, some thought that MGM would scale back racing. While racing days are dictated by the New York State Gaming Commission, MGM could have easily scrapped many or all of its high stakes races. They could have used the monies to increase overnight purses and done away with events like the Borgata, the Blue Chip Matchmaker the Yonkers Trot and the Messenger Stakes.

They didn’t do that and this year, they have 234 days of racing and offer the highest overnight purses in the sport. That helps to attract the best drivers and very good horses and when I watch in the evening, I like what I see. That is why seeing racing cancelled for four consecutive nights was unsettling and I was not alone in that thinking.

There will always be the “harness racing is an afterthought” crowd. Others think that if the sport can’t succeed on its own, then why not let it fail? Look no further than Pennsylvania, where for the second straight year, Governor Wolf’s budget calls for $200 million to be taken away from horse racing and used to offset the increasing cost of attending college.

Those bullet points look good in the paper and on newsclips, but harness/horse racing is much more than 10 races on a Tuesday evening. It’s an industry with many layers, levels and employees, but that’s a story for another column.

Those that saw an empty Yonkers, with what seemed like no attempt to remove the snow to try and race were believing the afterthought idea. If racing was vital, the snow would have been removed Monday, not Wednesday and racing would not have been cancelled for four straight nights.

MGM cited Covid protocols for not tending to the track sooner and with where we’re at today, it might be a legitimate reason, but there is no doubt that tracks with casinos are much more willing to cancel racing than tracks without them and this was going on before the Covid-19 pandemic.

We want the track and racing surface to be safe. But we also want to see racing and we want to see a concerted effort to make racing happen. There were doubts about that last week in New York.  

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