Vernon Downs opening in limbo as Gural and Faraldo scrap again

The latest in the long-running feud involves a disagreement about whether purses for stakes at Vernon should be cut the same percentage as overnights.

by Dave Briggs

The re-opening of Vernon Downs in Vernon, NY is in limbo after the lawyer representing the track’s horseperson’s association advised them not to agree to a deal to return to racing unless the track cut purses for stakes races by the same 20 per cent it was cutting overnight purses.

Vernon Downs owner Jeff Gural had offered to personally fund any purse shortfalls and start the live meet on June 10 — well ahead of the opening of the Vernon casino which is key in funding purses.

“The sticking point is that everybody is taking a haircut in this business,” said Joe Faraldo, the lawyer for the Harness Horse Association of Central New York (HHACNY), referring to cuts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. “The Sires Stakes people are going to take a haircut in New York. The horsemen have certainly taken a lot of abuse and a haircut… We don’t have the opportunity to furlough (horse)people like management does. We don’t have the opportunity, for the most part, to get PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money from the Cares Act, so (horsepeople have) suffered.”

Faraldo said he suggested to Gural that the horsepeople, “would be willing to take a cut of 20 per cent in our overnight purses… if the stakes program (were cut) proportionate to what the overnights suffered.”

Gural said he, “don’t necessarily disagree with” Faraldo that stakes races should see a commensurate cut as overnight purses, IF they were starting from scratch funding an overnight and stakes program. But that’s not the case at Vernon, Gural said.

“We only have two stakes there – the Empires Breeders Classic, where the conditions are that we put up $100,000 and the Sires Stakes put up $100,000 — and the Zweig, which is sponsored by the New York State breeders that put up $150,000.

“Under my contract, if the $250,000 we’re putting up exceeds 10 per cent of the total purses, then I have to make up the difference. So I’m probably going to lose around $100,000 racing for the month and Joe wants me to put up another $30,000 to maintain the purses for the Zweig and the Empire Breeders Classic.

“Enough is enough, how much do you want to lose? We’re talking about probably the differences of, maybe, $50 (per overnight) race in purses.

“I think it’s just as important to maintain the Empire Breeders Classic and the Zweig. It’s meaningless what he’s arguing about, it’s a rounding error.”

Faraldo said he didn’t think the request would be a problem because Vernon is contractually obligated to devote 90 per cent of purse money to overnights and 10 per cent to stakes. Thus, if overnight purses are being cut by 20 per cent, stakes would need to be cut by 20 per cent to maintain the 90/10 ratio. Instead, he said Gural responded by saying he wasn’t going to open the track.

“It’s negotiation a la Jeff: threaten the horsemen, turn them against the association, turn them against the president of the association, who basically calls the shots. I’m just the attorney,” Faraldo said. “All he has to do is come up with some other proposal. There were a number of things that he could suggest, but he’s taking the position that he wants to bring the fight to the people… undermine the negotiations that are going on by going directly to the people and turning them against their leadership.”

Gural said he doesn’t have a guess when Vernon will re-open.

“I have no idea. It’s not going to open. I would think that the horsemen up there are not going to be too happy. We have a lot of people training 2-year-olds, so if you have a 2-year-old that’s ready to baby race, the delay could be catastrophic. Joe’s hurting a lot of people and helping me… For me, it saves me a lot of money,” Gural said.

Faraldo warned that Vernon Downs’s management, “will have to abide by the existing contract if they want to avoid penalties for deciding not to open on or about the first week in June. The force majeure argument ends June 1 and recognizing that, concessions were made. The fact it will cost management money is the same cost for horsemen who have suffered also.”

Gural said he believes the vast majority of horsepeople at Vernon agree with him that getting Vernon open as soon as possible and money flowing to horsepeople — some of whom are in dire straits — is much more important that quibbling about whether purses for a couple of stakes races should be cut, too.

“I think if the horsemen at Vernon could vote on it, I would say that you’d have probably 10 people that would vote with Faraldo and everybody else would vote against what he’s proposing, but those 10 people are the board of the horsemen’s association,” Gural said, adding he doesn’t have a beef with the horsepeople, at large, at Vernon.

“The horsemen in Vernon are fine, it’s the horsemen’s association (that’s the problem) and they don’t represent the horsemen, but under the rules that the state has, it’s almost impossible for the horsemen there to get rid of the association, so they are stuck with an association that doesn’t represent them,” Gural said.

Faraldo said he’s “a pretty easy target for a lot of people, but, in this case, I’m an attorney representing a client and I’m doing my job. I just don’t like trading off the overnight people for stakes people.

“Everybody is taking a haircut here. We thought that was fair and we thought that was reasonable under the circumstances. Now, the conditions of the race say the purse is guaranteed and generally you can’t do anything, but in these two stakes, the Empire Breeders Classic and the Zweig, it says, if the conditions require it, that the purses can be lowered. It’s not guaranteed. So we said, ‘Don’t give us the argument that it’s guaranteed’ because you can do something. All we are asking to do is to do something that’s fair.”

Gural and Faraldo, the president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, have long disagreed publicly on a number of major issues pertaining to the sport. Both believe the fractured relationship has become personal.

In the Vernon case, Faraldo accused Gural of wanting to maintain stakes purse levels because, “Jeff can’t race horses in overnight events in New York state, but he can race in stakes and New York Sire Stakes. And that’s fine. I suspect, without knowing, that he’s probably got a horse in one of these (Vernon stakes),” Faraldo said.

Gural pointed specifically at recent FBI indictments in the alleged horse doping scandal and said he thinks the indictments riled Faraldo. Gural, who has long preached the need for enhanced integrity, said he helped the FBI in those indictments.

“I don’t think Joe was happy that I caught all of these drug guys,” Gural said. “His trainer was caught, Richard Banca. The top two trainers at Yonkers were ousted and that’s certainly a black eye for Joe’s association, so I’m sure that probably had a lot to do with it,” Gural said.

“I’ve had enough, I don’t need it. I’m doing the best I can to get three racetracks open and they are all going to cost me money to race. The people at Tioga are very appreciative. The people at the Meadowlands are very appreciative. The horsemen at Vernon are very appreciative and Joe Faraldo isn’t, basically.”