With no casino revenue, Vernon and Tioga set to close early

Track owner Jeff Gural said if non-tribal casinos in New York state remain closed, harness racing in the state could be in for even tougher times in 2021.

by Bill Finley

With New York’s non-tribal casinos still closed due to the coronavirus, Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs owner Jeff Gural said his New York tracks have run out of purse money and will close following the weekend of Sept. 12 and 13.

Gural had planned on shutting the tracks after Labor Day but said he wanted to stay open so that Tioga could okay host to the finals of the Excelsior Series on Sept. 11.

Tioga was ordinally scheduled to race through Sept. 19 and Vernon was set to close Nov. 7.

“The current plan is to close the weekend after Labor Day, unless by some miracle they allow us to open the casino,” Gural said. “There is no indication that is going to happen.”

New York is the only major racing state in the U.S. where the casinos have not opened. That has shut off the funnel of money from the casinos that is used to fund purses. Tioga and Vernon had already cut their schedules down to two days a week instead of three and Monticello has stayed closed all year.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed the situation July 30 when he told reporters the casinos remain closed because it is “an issue of density, the likelihood of compliance and the essential nature of the business.” When asked why malls were allowed to open and not casinos, Cuomo said it was because “people need food, people need clothes, people need home goods.”

New York’s casinos have been closed since March 16. According to the American Gaming Association, of the 990 casinos in the U.S., 851 have reopened.

Gural said he was able to keep the two tracks open as long as he has because the purse account builds up over the winter when racing is not operating, but the casinos are. That money is set aside to fund the upcoming racing meet. He said both tracks have used up that money and added that he has spent some of his own money to keep Tioga going through the Excelsior finals.

Gural said the ongoing closure of the casinos could also affect his tracks next year as there may not be any casino money coming in over the next several months that can be used for 2021 purses.

“Ordinarily, the cycle would start over again,” he said. “The bigger problem is going to be next year. Everything depends on when the casino opens and how much revenue we generate.”

He said the longer the casinos stay closed, the bigger the problem will be for New York harness racing. The vast majority of the purses come from the casinos and the tracks simply can’t do without that source of revenue.

“Besides destroying the casinos it has destroyed racing,” he said.“It’s a huge blow to racing in New York. A huge amount of money is no longer available to purses and that can destroy racing. If the casinos don’t open soon we might as well take a year off. We already had to cut back to two days a week. That has been catastrophic for New York racing, which relies entirely on casino revenue. But this is what happens when you rely on a subsidy.”

He said he also fears the casino shut down could lead to an effort to decouple, which is what happens when casinos no longer have to give a portion of their revenues to racing. Gural said the casinos will be in such tough shape while the shutdown continues that they might seek remedies to bolster their bottom line, including decoupling. “We really have to be watching carefully what happens next,” he said.

Gural has always been a supporter of Cuomo, but admits he has grown frustrated with the governor’s failure to open the casinos. Cuomo has no control over the state’s tribal casinos, all of which are open. Casinos are also open in four states that border New York — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“I think the governor has done an amazing job,” he said. “In New York, we are down to one per cent testing positive. But we haven’t been able to convince him that by keeping us closed, it’s actually keeping people less safe. If all the casinos were closed that would be one thing. But we are closed and the eight tribal casinos are not. Neither are the casinos in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio. Everybody who would ordinarily be going to my casinos in an area where nobody is sick is now going to other casinos in areas where there are far more people testing positive than in upstate New York. We just weren’t able to mark that argument to convince him. If he were sitting here I could convince him, but that’s not the case.”