04/14/2016 10:56AM

Track's future uncertain as 155-day meet opens


Finger Lakes Racetrack will begin its 55th season Saturday amid concerns that this could be the upstate New York track’s final year.

Most of the track’s purse money comes from revenue generated at the Finger Lakes casino, which has 1,500 slot machines. Beginning next February, Finger Lakes will face increased competition from the now-under-construction Del Lago Resort and Casino, which is located 25 miles away and is much closer to the population base of Rochester. When completed, Del Lago will have 2,000 slot machines, 100 table games, and a 200-room hotel.

According to David Brown, president of the Finger Lakes Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, “When Del Lago opens, people are going to go there. The estimate of how much they will hurt the Finger Lakes casino range from 22 percent to 40 to 50 percent. The true number probably lies somewhere in the middle.”

The legislation to expand gambling in New York state contains a provision to protect existing casinos if a new one is licensed in the same region. But while Del Lago is located near Finger Lakes, it is in the Southern Tier/Finger Lakes zone, while Finger Lakes is in the Seneca Indian Nation zone.

“The gaming commission told us this was an unintended consequence,” Brown said, “that it would all be worked out.”

But it hasn’t.

In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recently passed budget, Finger Lakes was included in the same region as Del Lago, and its owners, Delaware North, were given a tax break. Once Del Lago opens, Finger Lakes will pay 59 percent of its net winnings to the state instead of 69 percent. But the budget did not include anything to make the horsemen’s purse account whole.

“If we are not protected, we are pretty much sunk,” Brown said. “The governor’s office has told us this will be handled by the end of the legislative session on June 16, but we don’t have anything right now.”

Brown said the annual Finger Lakes purse account is between $15 million and $16 million, and that every 10 percent revenue decline at the Finger Lakes casino would cost the purse account about $1.1 million.

“If the purse account drops to $11 million or $12 million a year, it won’t make economic sense to race here,” Brown said.

Most of the horsemen at Finger Lakes are owner-trainers, according to Brown. “Our average horseman earns about $30,000 a year,” he said. “They barely get by.”

Finger Lakes also is important to the state’s breeding industry because it gives New York-breds who can’t make it at the New York Racing Association tracks a place to run.

If Finger Lakes were to close, Brown said the region would lose 1,200 jobs, half of which belong to minorities.

“By my count, there are 35 farms within 20 miles of Finger Lakes,” Brown said. “They provide hay and straw to the track, board horses, or are breeding farms. If Finger Lakes closes, the economic impact will be great.”

But for this year, things will go on as normal. Finger Lakes will race 155 days through Nov. 30, and purses will average about $101,000 a day, according to Bill Couch, the track’s director of racing.

The richest race of the season will be the $200,000-estimated New York Breeders’ Futurity on Oct. 1. Twelve other stakes are scheduled, all for New York-breds.

Couch has changed the dates of a number of stakes this year so they mesh better with races at the NYRA tracks. He did this in cooperation with Martin Panza, the senior vice president of racing operations at NYRA.

The Niagara and Ontario County stakes, which were run in August last year, are scheduled for June. The Jack Betta Be Rite and Genessee Valley stakes, which were run in September, have been moved to August, and the Arctic Queen has been moved from July to October.

“I worked with Martin to try to avoid conflicts in our stakes schedule, especially with the 2-year-old stakes,” Couch said.

Trainer Chris Engelhart will shoot for his 14th straight Finger Lakes training title. He has won 15 titles overall. His son, Jeremiah, has finished second in the trainer standings the past four years.

Jaime Rodriguez, the winner of the last three Finger Lakes riding titles, is back. Tammi Piermarini is new to the jockey colony this year, and Harry Hernandez has two opening-day mounts for trainer M. Anthony Ferraro.

With Suffolk Downs closed, Finger Lakes will run some races for Massachusetts-breds this year.

“We are going to run some Mass-bred races to help out the New England horsemen,” Couch said. “We are going to run six in the spring, starting on May 7, and maybe four more in the fall, including a 2-year-old stakes.”

2016 Finger Lakes stakes schedule

Mon., June 6 The George Barker Stakes 3YO & UP Open 6F $50,000
Mon., June 20 The Niagara Stakes 3YO Fillies 6F $50,000
Mon., June 27 The Ontario Stakes 3YO Open 6F $50,000
Sat., July 23 The New York Derby 3YO Open 1 1/16M $150,000
Sat., July 23 The New York Oaks 3YO Fillies 1 1/16M $75,000
Mon., Aug. 15 The Jack Betta Be Rite Stakes 3YO & UP Open 1 1/16M $50,000
Mon., Aug. 22 The Genessee Valley Stakes 3YO & UP Open 1 1/16M $50,000
Sat., Sept. 10 Lady Fingers Stakes 2YO Fillies 6F $100,000
Sat., Sept. 10 Aspirant Stakes 2YO C&G 6F $100,000
Sat., Oct. 1 The NY Breeder's Futurity Stakes 2YO Open 6F $200,000
Mon., Oct. 3 The Artict Queen 3YO & UP F&M 6F $50,000
Wed., Oct. 12 Leon Reed Stakes 3YO & UP Open 6F $50,000
Mon., Oct. 24 Shesastonecoldfox 2YO Fillies 6f $50,000

*All stakes races are for NY-breds