The 80th season of harness racing in Saratoga Springs opened on Monday, March 1. Depending on where negotiations end up in the state budget, this season could be harness racing’s last in the Spa City.
In a surprising move, Governor Andrew Cuomo included a provision in his executive budget that, if passed, will allow Rivers Casino & Resort Schenectady to stop purse support payments to the Saratoga Harness Horseperson’s Association (SHHA) until six months after all pandemic restrictions have been lifted.
The provision is considered a surprise because it has no bearing on state tax revenue.
According to Assemblymember Carrie Woerner, the proposal renders the SHHA inoperable, and “there would no longer be harness racing in Saratoga Springs.”
“I have deep concerns that what has been proposed in the governor’s budget, what has been termed a sweetheart deal for Rivers Casino, would in fact make all of this impossible,” she said.
Purse support payments were negotiated in 2013. The law requires that upstate casinos ensure that harness track revenues are what they were at the time the law was signed.
The money in question goes into a purse account, which is used for the benefit of the SHHA. It pays for purses – the money that owners race for – as well as operational expenses like track maintenance. The money from the fund also pays for members’ health insurance, drivers, and groomers. Anyone who is a member of SHHA can participate in the association’s health insurance plan.
By a quirk of fate, all of the upstate casinos are affiliated with harness tracks, except Rivers. Because of that, Rivers only pays a portion of what, for example, the Saratoga Casino & Raceway pays.
The Rivers Casino emailed the following to Capital Tonight in response to a request:
Rivers Casino was in a precarious economic situation prior to the pandemic and is now in far worse shape because of the six-month shutdown and current COVID-19 restrictions, including the state-mandated 25% operating capacity and limited hours (6 a.m. – 11 p.m. daily).
The gaming statute NEVER intended to place a struggling Rivers Casino on the hook to make up revenue declines at Saratoga Casino and Raceway caused by an unforeseen catastrophe like the COVID-19 pandemic, or a lack of performance at Saratoga. The budget proposal eliminates the windfall to Saratoga Casino and Raceway.
Rush Street Gaming, which owns Rivers, hasn’t paid its share to the Saratoga Harness Horseman’s Association since January of 2020, before the pandemic officially hit New York.
The following question was emailed to Rush Street Gaming this afternoon:
Rivers is open, though at partial capacity. The governor’s proposal reportedly requires Rivers to pay its first quarter payment of $825,000. Will Rivers pay that? If so, when? If not, why?
Here is the emailed response from Rush Street Gaming:
“If and when the governor's proposal is enacted, we'll comply. The proposal gives Rivers time to come up with the money and regain some financial footing.”
There is some apparent thawing of the ice. As of this afternoon, the SHHA and Rush Street Gaming had agreed to sit down and negotiate.
If the two parties don’t come to an agreement, the fate of harness racing in Saratoga could be left up to the parties negotiating a state budget. While the Assembly’s one-house budget bill doesn’t include the governor’s provision, the Senate’s bill does, with a small change: Instead of purse payments being delayed until six months after all pandemic restrictions are lifted, they would be delayed three months.
Here’s the full statement from Rivers:
"Rivers Casino was in a precarious economic situation prior to the pandemic and is now in far worse shape because of the six-month shutdown and current COVID-19 restrictions, including the state-mandated 25% operating capacity and limited hours (6 a.m. – 11 p.m. daily).
"Rivers Casino is the ONLY casino which does not own or operate a track that is obligated to subsidize a harness track. The gaming statute NEVER intended to place a struggling Rivers Casino on the hook to make up revenue declines at Saratoga Casino and Raceway caused by an unforeseen catastrophe like the COVID-19 pandemic, or a lack of performance at Saratoga.
"The budget proposal eliminates the windfall to Saratoga Casino and Raceway. Our top priority at Rivers is the economic viability of Schenectady and the well-being and job stability of our 1,000 team members, a significant amount of whom are from underserved and minority communities. The pandemic presents an unprecedented economic disaster to the city of Schenectady and the state of New York, and Rivers looks forward to being part of the plan to help revitalize the city during its recovery."