Yonkers will end its 2020 season with the New York Sire Stakes Night of Champions, but a number of stakes, including the Yonkers Trot and Messenger Stakes, have been cancelled for the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
by Debbie Little
When Yonkers Raceway returned to action on Monday, June 22 after being sidelined for 15 weeks by the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed like everything was back on track at the historic Hilltop oval.
But with their casino still dark, the wheels came off on Monday, Aug. 18, when a joint press release from Empire City Casino by MGM Resorts and the Standardbred Owners Association of New York (SOA) announced an agreement to extend racing only through Saturday, Sept. 12, which is New York Sire Stakes (NYSS) Night of Champions.
“The casino has been closed since March, so that’s a long time of no money coming in for purses,” said Yonkers Raceway director of racing Alex Dadoyan. “And it’s not just the casino. Even though we have been open with racing, we have not been able to have people on property to wager either for the live racing or for simulcasting. The Saratoga [thoroughbred] meet is running upstate and that’s always the top simulcast signal for any track where you can generate some money on simulcasting and we’ve not been open the whole time.”
The release explains that racing would have ceased in August if not for this agreement where MGM Resorts will continue to pay operating expenses and the SOA will contribute $1.2 million to purses.
“Maybe people outside of the paddock at Yonkers weren’t aware, but I’ve been telling everybody when the purses run out, racing will stop here. Period. End of sentence,” said SOA president Joe Faraldo.
“And then we decided to do this little bridge thing with the $1.2 million, which I was hoping we wouldn’t have to do. Maybe Christ could turn water into wine, but the SOA can’t turn pennies into millions of dollars. It just isn’t going to happen.”
The $1.2 million is coming from the SOA treasury and is not purse money. It is money that would otherwise be used for administration, welfare and retirement benefits for their membership, but the SOA did not believe that this amount would affect the form of benefits or services that they provide.
“I’ll do what I can do,” said Faraldo. “And that $1.2 million, that’s not something to sneeze about.”
The SOA of New York is stepping up to do this because we’re concerned about the Night of Champions. The vast majority of the funding [for Night of Champions] comes from revenue generated at Yonkers Raceway from racing as a minor component and from the VLTs as a major component. So we didn’t want to see all that effort go down the drain.”
Since returning to racing in June, the SOA has tried to be strategic and creative when it came to doling out their purse monies. They even picked up some sire stakes races originally scheduled for Monticello, because racing four nights with one NYSS night means only three nights would come from their purse account.
“In this economic time it is beneficial,” said Faraldo. “Because in normal times sometimes those (NYSS) races do not generate betting interest like your regular overnights, but in these times it’s absolutely essential that we have that. And actually I think the best night we had was all sire stakes which I couldn’t figure out at all. It hasn’t repeated but it did happen once this year. I’m glad we had enough reserves to get us through as long as we did. I wish we had more or that I had more alternatives, but I don’t.”
Even though Night of Champions is secure on the calendar, other stakes were not so fortunate.
The Yonkers Trot, the Messenger Stakes and their companion races – the New York, New York Mile (formerly the Hudson Filly Trot) and the MGM Park Place (formerly the Lady Maud) – are casualties of COVID-19.
“There was no more money, and if you read the release, the SOA made some maneuvers to fund for another month or so and they chose not to have those stakes and use that money for overnights instead,” said Dadoyan.
Dadoyan informed the Hambletonian Society when the decision was made to cancel the stakes with the hope that another track would step up to host the historic Triple Crown races.
“I did make some calls to various jurisdictions and a couple of tracks and nobody has any excess dollars to put into those races,” said Hambletonian Society president John Campbell. “The first priority for the SOA is to get their overnight horsemen and overnight horses raced and then the stakes would be another priority.”
It’s a balancing act putting on stakes for all these jurisdictions. I think every jurisdiction and every horsemen’s association realizes the importance of stakes to the industry, to the owners, the trainers and the breeding industry.”
According to Hambletonian Society stakes manager David Janes, a total of 47 colt trotters and 40 filly trotters made their 3-year-old payments on Feb. 15 for the Yonkers Trot and New York, New York Mile and as per the conditions, the monies will be prorated among the owners of the horses eligible at the time of cancellation.
The same conditions apply to the 44 colt pacers and 39 filly pacers for the Messenger and Park Place.
“Obviously everyone can’t wait to get back to some sense of normal and we’re all hoping for a return to that,” said Dadoyan. “Having Empire City Casino open and having Yonkers Raceway resume and get back to some bit of normal. There hasn’t been a lot of normal in this area for the last six months or so, so everyone, in all aspects of life, is looking forward to a return to what was normal.”