- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006


Less than a mile away sits the crown jewel of American thoroughbred racing.The Saratoga Race Course opened in 1864 and plays host to the summer’s premier race, the Travers Stakes. Its 36-day season, running from late July to Labor Day, routinely draws more than 1 million spectators.

Over on Crescent Avenue, in this town of about 30,000 located 30 minutes north of Albany and a three-hour train ride from Manhattan, sits Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, a year-round harness track that opened in 1941.

For years, the harness track struggled to find its identity as people found other means of entertainment and stopped coming to the track.

However, Saratoga Gaming and Raceway 2 years ago became the first New York track to introduce video lottery terminals (VLTs). The track now draws 50,000 visitors per week to its 55,000-square-foot gaming room.

“Once we got VLTs, it was like the promised land, and it’s absolutely been a success,” said Skip Carlson, the track’s vice president of racing. “We thought and planned a long time ago to get video gaming to the racetrack, and it was a product that we desperately needed. Without it, harness racing in New York state would have been hard-pressed to survive.”

Other New York harness tracks followed suit. Batavia Downs, Buffalo Raceway and Monticello Raceway since have added VLTs, and gambling is planned for the Vernon Downs and Yonkers Raceway harness tracks and the Aqueduct thoroughbred track.

The success of Saratoga Gaming and Raceway should be noted by Maryland officials who desire slot machines at their racetracks. The Saratoga track isn’t trying to become a resortlike facility. Its target customer lives within a 50-mile radius, can drive to the “racino,” gamble for a few hours, then drive home. The track competes for customers against dozens of off-track betting parlors, two minor-league hockey teams and Division I basketball and hockey.

The addition of slots undoubtedly would help Pimlico and Laurel Park compete in a flooded sports market that has a combined six National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball teams, plus University of Maryland football and basketball.

Mr. Carlson said Saratoga Gaming and Raceway’s business before it added gaming was in a steady decline.

“We were piecing things together,” he said.

The track generated $1.3 billion in revenues last year and turned a $104 million profit. The state’s education system gets the biggest chunk of the revenue: $55.5 million in 2005.

The track’s purses totaled $3.96 million in 2003, the last full year without VLTs. That number jumped to $9.04 million in 2004 and $12.31 million last year. The number of racing dates increased from 125 days in 2003 to 175 this year.

That has resulted in better competition.

“It’s extremely tough to win a race here now. It’s not like we’re giving the money away,” Mr. Carlson said. “My plan in five years is to have purses around $15 million.”

That’s good news for the trainers at the track, many of whom worked second jobs before the arrival of VLTs.

“The video gaming has attracted all kinds of owners,” said trainer Jim Tracy. “I have owners who are brand new to the game, and I have owners who have returned to the sport after a long hiatus. It’s not a get-rich-quick thing, but it’s given people who love to own horses a chance to break even. Before VLTs, owning horses here was a losing proposition financially.”

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