SARATOGA SPRINGS — Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner (D-Saratoga Springs) is calling on Rivers Casino to pay its statutory obligation to the Saratoga Harness (SHHA).
“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,” said Woerner, during a press conference at the harness track March 16.
The proposal in the Governor’s budget would eliminate statutory purse support payments to SHHA until six months after all COVID restrictions are lifted. According to Woerner, the proposal renders the SHHA inoperable and “there would no longer be harness racing in Saratoga Springs.”
Woerner explained that both the Casino and the Harness Track were closed for months during the pandemic and that SHHA doesn’t expect the full payment, which could amount to millions of dollars. But she and SHHA, did expect Rivers to come to the table in good faith and negotiate a reasonable outcome for both. Rivers has not paid its purse support payments since the beginning of 2020—two-and-a-half months before the pandemic shut down businesses across the state, Woerner added.
In 2013 when New York sited four casinos upstate, the state also moved to support the harness racing industry by establishing purse support payments. The statutory purse payments were designed to offset the loss of income at the state’s harness tracks caused by the new casinos. These payments are sourced from revenues that casinos make from Video Lottery Terminals (VLT). The four upstate casinos--including Rivers Casino--have been required to make purse payments since their inception. The Saratoga Casino has made good on its commitment to SHHA but Rivers has not.
“This is a big casino. This is a wealthy corporation . . . Rush Street Gaming which is the parent company for Rivers Casino last year did a public offering. They are sitting on a quarter of a billion dollars of cash. Clearly enough to both operate their casino and meet their obligations,” said Woerner.
The funds provide financial support for trainers, drivers, groomers and the small businesses that support Saratoga’s Harness industry. Among other costs, these funds pay for: Mandatory state racing fees; Payment toward the Dept. of Environmental Conservation required program to remove manure from the back stretch; Minimum driver stipend paid to each driver for each race; Required program reimbursement fee for each live race card, and $31,451.18 per month ($377,414 annually) for SHHA member health insurance.
“There are 700 owners and trainers in Saratoga Horsemen. There are thousands of families—mostly black and brown families—that work in the barns, that work in local farms, that work in farms across the state in the harness business. There are farriers that shoe the horses, there are veterinarians, there are farmers that grow the hey, the straw, the oats—this is a big economic impact,” said Woerner.