04/20/2017 10:46AM

Purse agreement buys time for more permanent solution

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If you look at the condition book for the 145-day Finger Lakes meet that begins Saturday, it seems like business as usual. Purses are the same as a year ago, and while the meet is 10 days shorter, not much else seems to have changed.

Looks can be deceiving.

The annual Finger Lakes purse structure of about $15 million largely comes from revenue generated by the racino’s video lottery terminals. Those funds are going to shrink markedly this year since a full-blown Las Vegas-style casino, the Del Lago, opened 30 miles away in February.

While Finger Lakes owner Delaware North received a tax break from the state to make up for the gaming business it is expected to lose, the Finger Lakes horsemen were not compensated, putting live racing at the track in jeopardy.

David Brown, the president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association at Finger Lakes, has worked the past three years to strike a deal with the state, Delaware North, and Del Lago to reimburse the horsemen. An agreement was finally reached last month.

“The deal was not particularly favorable to us, but with the timing of when we wanted to open, we felt it was good enough to move forward,” Brown said.

Delaware North has agreed to contribute $1 million to the purse fund beyond what the video lottery terminals generate in each of the next two years –the arrangement has a third-year option. If business at the Finger Lakes VLTs drops 30 percent or more, however, Delaware North’s contribution will be reduced to $600,000.

“So far, the [VLTs aren’t] off anywhere near 30 percent,” Brown said. “The last I saw, it was about 17 percent. But I expect that figure to grow this summer when Del Lago opens its hotel.”

Under the agreement, Del Lago will contribute $440,000 to the Finger Lakes purse account in each of the next two years. Additionally, the New York Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund has increased the amount of money it has earmarked for Finger Lakes to $1.5 million in each of the next two years.

“Basically, we have just kicked the can down the road for two to three years,” Brown said. “But the breeders really came through for us, and, for that matter, so did Delaware North. Of course, they kind of had to because without live racing, there is no racino.”

Money from the Breeding and Development Fund will make up a larger percentage of the purses for statebred races than in the past. In 2016, a New York-bred maiden race’s purse of $23,000 contained $4,000 from the Breeding and Development Fund. This year, that same purse will include $11,500 from the fund.

A new maiden-race bonus also has been put in place this year for horses who are New York-bred and New York-sired. A horse bred and sired in the state will receive a $7,000 bonus for winning an open or statebred maiden race at Finger Lakes. That means a New York-bred maiden winner will earn $20,800 – $13,800 from the purse, plus the bonus.

Another part of the HBPA/Delaware North agreement calls for the track to “negotiate in good faith with the horsemen about installing a turf course at Finger Lakes,” according to Brown. The horsemen and breeders’ organization have long wanted a grass course.

“On May 9, the gaming commission, the breeders, the horsemen, and Finger Lakes will meet to discuss having a feasibility study and engineering study done to see what it would take to put in a turf course,” Brown said.

While the purse structure for the next two years has been worked out, the track is facing another hurdle. Brown said because of the drawn-out negotiations, some horsemen have chosen to stable elsewhere.

“We have fewer horses on the grounds at this time of year than I have ever seen before,” Brown said. “Instead of 1,150 horses, we have 800. With everything so up in the air, some people got nervous, and if they had an option to go someplace else, they did.”

Brown said he would soon be reaching out to those horsemen and offering incentives for them to return to Finger Lakes.

Bill Couch, the former director of racing, has retired. Fred Hutton is the track’s new racing secretary.

Hutton, 59, is a former rider and trainer who previously was the director of racing at Zia Park in New Mexico and Sam Houston Race Park in Texas. Hutton also worked for 11 years at Remington Park, where he was the director of racing.

Hutton said last year’s top three trainers, Jeremiah and Chris Engelhart and Michael Ferraro, will be back this year, as will Charlton Baker.

To cut 10 days from its schedule, the track will race only Saturday and Monday opening week and then Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday during its second week. Finger Lakes will then add Wednesdays and on May 25 will go to a five-days-a-week schedule by adding Thursdays.

In August, when Saratoga is running, Finger Lakes will drop Thursdays and go back to four days a week. The Finger Lakes meet will continue through Nov. 28.

The 13-race stakes schedule is the same as last year. The richest stakes of the season is the $200,000 New York Breeders’ Futurity on Sept. 30.