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Casino brings uncertainty for Saratoga's harness racing industry

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Albany/HV: Casino brings uncertainty for Saratoga's harness racing industry
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Saratoga Casino and Raceway's decision to no longer pursue a license for a full-scale casino with table games in the Spa City may have been welcome news to many, but not everyone is convinced it's the best bet for the future. Our Matt Hunter has the story.

MOREAU, NY – Nine years ago, Harvey Stein and his wife, Eileen, packed up their California-based standardbred breeding farm and headed east.

"We moved to New York specifically because of the VLT installation here in Saratoga," said Stein, owner of Northway Farm in Moreau.

"Purses have gone up dramatically from even when we first arrived. It's been very good to us I would say."

Fueled largely by millions of dollars in revenue from video lottery terminal casinos across the state, including one at Saratoga Casino and Raceway, New York's harness racing industry is thriving by most accounts.

"As the VLT's caught on, the purses kept going up and up and up," said Barry Segel a trainer with 40 years on the track who serves as president of the Saratoga Harness Horsepersons Association.

That revenue stream is why local horsemen were hopeful Saratoga would be awarded the Capital Region's sole license to add table games, believing it would boost attendance and dollars.

With that plan now off the table after Saratoga Casino and Raceway executives announced their pursuing licenses in East Greenbush and Newburgh instead, there's fear the sport will suffer.

"The pie may remain the same size but when you are fighting for different pieces of it, you could end up with just crumbs," Stein said.

To horsemen, more concerning than the potential drop in attendance is their purse structure, which is partially funded by VLTs. Last year it generated $13 million for Saratoga.

New York gaming law does require any new casino to set aside the same amount of money for purses that VLT racinos did in 2013, but horsemen seem to have little faith that revenue stream will remain intact long-term.

"Even if they had the casino here, that still would be a concern that the state, at any time, can take the money away," Segel said.

"There are no guarantees in life and that's kind of how we operate,” Stein said.

It's expected to be another six months before casino sites are chosen and it could be years before the impact is felt. Horsemen like Stein are hopeful it doesn't dramatically impact their livelihood.

"As it stands now, it's difficult,” said Stein, who races in addition to breeding. "If we were to see any significant decrease in purses, it would be impossible.”

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