State budget requires Rivers Casino to continue payments to Saratoga harness owners

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Stephen Williams, The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y.
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Apr. 8—Shares2FacebookTweetEmail

CAPITOL — A deal struck by the involved parties and included in the state budget will keep money from gaming at Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady flowing to the owners and trainers of harness racing horses at the Saratoga harness track.

Under the deal, Rivers will make about $1.8 million in payments for 2020, and going forward will pay a set percentage of slot machine revenue, in what Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, described as a good compromise. Including it in the state budget sets the formula in state law.

"It supports harness racing and it also recognizes the realities for the casino," Woerner, whose 113th Assembly District includes the harness track and many of the farms that support it. She has been a leading advocate for resolving the dispute brought on as the COVID-19 pandemic pinched off revenue for both the casino and the track.

"I think it is a very equitable deal," she said on Wednesday. "The two parties got together and worked it out. This was never a state budget item, so in my opinion it should never have been tied to the budget, but now it is in the budget, and it is memorialized in the budget."

Rivers had stopped making the state-mandated payments to the Saratoga Harness Horsepersons' Association last year, when the casino was shut down for several months as part of the state's efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. It re-opened in September with reduced crowd capacity, and continues to operate at reduced capacity.

The harness track at Saratoga Casino Hotel has faced its own threats from COVID-19, with racing briefly cancelled last year, and then allowed to operate without fans in the stands (fans still aren't allowed at the track, though the video lottery terminal casino has resumed operations.)

"Carrie Woerner did a tremendous job for us," said Tom McTygue of Saratoga Springs, a long-time harness horse owner. "It all worked out perfectly. We thank the leadership of the state Senate and Assembly for meeting with us."

Senator Joseph Addabbo, D-Queens, and Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, D-Mt. Vernon, the chairs of the racing and wagering committees in their respective chambers, were involved in the negotiations, the owners and trainers group said.

The budget deal includes Rivers making approximately $1.8 million in payments for 2020 over the next 12 months. Going forward, it establishes that the horsepersons association will receive 3.3% of Rivers' slot revenue to enhance harness racing purses, with another 0.5% going to a breeder's fund. Future payments will be capped at the 2019 level — around $5 million. The money goes to enhanced racing purses and other harness racing expenses at Saratoga.

"We are pleased to have reached an agreement with Rivers," said Jeff Cantine, President of SHHA. "Our continued participation in this gaming revenue is long recognized as necessary to sustain our industry. We are very appreciative of our many supporters, as well as in particular for the efforts of Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner."

Sarah Burger of Saratoga Springs, attorney for the horsepersons, said the new law is clearer than what governed the matter in the past, which was a provision written into the casino franchise agreement in 2013 that said a harness track within 50 miles of a casino had to receive support, because the casino was presumed to draw business away from the horse track. "The way it was written originally was not clear," Burger said.

Rivers Casino issued a short statement Wednesday: "We are pleased that Rivers Casino has reached an agreement with the Saratoga Harness Horseperson's Association and we wish them all the best for the upcoming racing season. We are hopeful that both businesses will soon return to pre-COVID levels."

Last month, Woerner and Horsepersons' Association representatives held a press conference at the Saratoga track calling on Rivers to come to the negotiating table. Rivers officials said at the time that the provision is unfair, and the payments should stop, but with the issue getting taken up in Albany, is agreed to talks.

There are about 700 members of the harnessperson's association, but thousands of others working on farms also rely on it, Woerner said at the time.

The association says the casino purse payments help cover mandatory racing fees, backstretch manure removal, a minimum driver stipend for each race, and health insurance premiums for horsepersons. There are other sources of purse money as well, including about $2.5 million per quarter from the on-site VLT revenue.

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