Yonkers Raceway could see new pot of money in Cuomo casino gambling plan

Written by
Jorge Fitz-Gibbon

YONKERS — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to legalize casino gambling in the state could provide a massive financial boost to Yonkers Raceway and New York’s eight other “racinos” — horse racing tracks with electronic gaming facilities that already have proven extremely lucrative.

Tim Rooney Jr., general counsel for Yonkers Raceway and Empire City, its gaming operation, said a new amendment to allow more traditional casinos in the state would prompt “a more significant investment” in operations at the track, which collected nearly $7.8 billion last year — 30 percent of it going to the raceway.

“We think that the addition of the gaming and poker games and blackjack would really put us in a position where no one would have to go to the Connecticut casinos or to the New Jersey casinos and we’d be able to offer everything they have, including the entertainment and the hotels and restaurants and things of that sort,” said Rooney, whose family has owned the track since 1972.

“Basically we see it as sort of a natural extension of what we’re doing now, just allowing us to offer more of the games that our customers really want to play, which is blackjack and the live table games,” he said. “We have some electronic table games now, and they’re very popular. But yet they’re not near as popular as the real table games might be.”

State officials note that the measure, part of Cuomo’s proposed state budget, is in the early stages with details still not ironed out. But the governor said it could bring an additional $1 billion annually, expanding on statewide racino operations that reported $16 billion in sales last year and provided $593 million in state education spending.

The proposal includes a merger of the New York State Lottery, which oversees the racino gambling operations, and the state Racing & Wagering Board, which oversees horse racing. The new entity, the New York State Gaming Commission, would control most of the state’s games of chance.

“Let’s amend the constitution,” Cuomo said in a budget presentation in Yonkers on Jan. 18. “Let’s call them what they are. Let’s regulate them right, let’s regulate them properly. Let’s tax them correctly, let’s get the revenue for our state and let’s protect our people. Let’s pass a constitutional amendment that allows casinos, recognize the reality and regulate them for what they are.”

Officials at both the wagering board and the lottery declined to comment.

Empire City at Yonkers Raceway was by far the most successful of the racinos, supplying nearly 50 percent of sales and net revenues and 54 percent of education money last year. Yonkers’ dominance of the racino operations could face a challenge. New York’s newest gaming facility, the Resorts World casino at Aqueduct Raceway, kept pace with Yonkers Raceway after it opened in October.

Rooney, the Yonkers track’s general counsel, also said that details of Cuomo’s casino proposal could prove significant. For example, if self-standing casinos are allowed under a new gambling amendment, they could compete with the racinos for gamblers.

Rooney also said that though Empire City handles billions of dollars, it receives only 30 percent of the take, with all expenses coming out of that cut. He noted that “that 30 percent that some people misconstrue as sort of our bottom line is really the top line, and everything comes off of that.”

The bulk of the money brought in by racinos goes back into jackpots and for education funding. If traditional casino operations are brought into racinos, Rooney said, the formula might have to change.

“Frankly the live table games are much more labor intensive and the house is at risk,” he said. “And even … with the electronic table games we wind up losing money on some of them sometimes, depending on how the players are faring. So, the tax rate on the table games may have to be adjusted off of the 70 percent rate we pay now to something significantly lower to make it worthwhile.”

Regardless, officials in Albany reiterated that any fine-tuning in the proposal is still under way. They maintain, however, that Cuomo has been firm in his desire to see the law change.

“The governor has submitted his proposal to change the constitution that would govern gaming,” said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the governor’s budget office. “That, I think, speaks to how early we are in the process. All things in due time and I’m sure we’ll get there eventually.”

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