by Tom Precious
They tapped various talking points—from higher purses and a beefed-up breeding industry to protecting green space and even family values—but a group of Thoroughbred representatives have brought a singular message to state officials: Get the Aqueduct video lottery terminal casino off the ground.
“We desperately need for them to make the decision," Thomas J. Gallo III, managing owner of Parting Glass Racing in Saratoga County, said of state officials’ latest attempt to select an operator for the long-stalled Aqueduct casino.
Industry representatives, from breeders to barn workers, rallied at the state capitol July 27 in the latest attempt to put pressure on Gov. David Paterson and legislative leaders to resolve the casino delay. The state had been looking to make a decision by Aug. 1, but sources said it could be until after the upcoming Saratoga meet before a developer for the project is tapped.
The rally came as representatives of the six different bidding groups began holding closed-door meetings with the Paterson administration to go over financial details of their plans. Insiders said the meetings will be held through July 29.
The Aqueduct VLT casino was first approved just weeks after the 2001 terrorist attacks, partly as a way to help raise money for the state through revenue-sharing from the 4,500 machines slated for the facility. The state expects to raise more than $1 million a day for itself from the casino’s proceeds.
But a series of legal, political, and financial setbacks have served to delay construction at the facility through three gubernatorial administrations. Meanwhile, besides other nearby states getting new or expanded casino operations, other tracks in New York—Finger Lakes Gaming and Racing and the others harness facilities—have operated VLTs for years.
“Just make the decision you were supposed to make eight years ago," trainer H. James Bond said at the rally in a message to state officials.
The group staked out a spot in a park next to the capitol, bringing with them some bales of hay, a horse, and horseshoes that they distributed to Paterson’s office and legislative leaders as symbols of their frustration.
Bond predicted dire consequences for the Thoroughbred industry—affecting everything from horse farms to blacksmiths and vets—if the casino doesn’t start operating soon to help bolster purses.
“Unfortunately, the horses are starting to leave," Bond said. “Unfortunately, it seems like state government doesn’t care."
The horse industry is expecting millions of dollars each year in higher purses and revenue-sharing for breeding programs from the VLTs. It will take at least a year to get the casino open once the governor and legislative leaders sign off on a deal.
In an interview, Gallo, vice president of New York Thoroughbred Breeders, said industry officials are starting to care less about which bidder is selected, and that they will trust it to the state to properly evaluate the casino competitors.
“Let’s just get this show on the road," he said.
Gallo said more and more horse owners are being lured to nearby states with higher purses. That, he said, hurts everything from the New York Racing Association to breeders and more than 40,000 people that, in one way or the other, rely on the horse industry for their livelihood in New York.
“It’s not about a bunch of rich horse owners," he said.
Others at the rally said much is hanging on the Aqueduct casino. Mallory Mort, farm manager at Gallagher’s Stud in Columbia County, said higher breeders’ awards will translate to more valuable New York-bred horses.
“Money follows money,"’ Mort said in an interview after the rally.
“It’s time to end the eight years of shame," said Lois Engel of Pucker Ridge Farm in the southern Adirondack Mountains.