Racing to continue at Yonkers after Saturday as Empire City Casino prepares to reopen

by Debbie Little

Gov. Andrew Cuomo came through for harness racing, as New York State casinos have been given the green light to reopen, saving Yonkers Raceway from shutting down at the conclusion of racing this weekend.

In mid-August, 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 (full story here).

“It was great news that the casino can reopen and begin to get back to normal,” said Yonkers Raceway director of racing Alex Dadoyan. “The first step is the 25 per cent that we start at and it’s great for everyone. There were so many employees that were out of work and can now get back to what they do, as well as the horsemen that were racing with an uncertain future.”

Racing would have ceased in August if not for MGM Resorts agreeing to continue to pay operating expenses while the SOA contributed $1.2 million to purses.

“We’ll keep the purses how they are until we see how it goes,” said SOA president Joe Faraldo. “So next week we’ll only race four days, same purse level, then we’ll go to five days, same purse level, until we see how much money we’re generating and what has to happen.”

Even though some casinos in the state reopened on the first day possible, Sept. 9, Empire City chose a different path.

“It’s never been our goal to reopen first or fastest, but safest,” said Taryn Duffy, VP corporate communications & public affairs for Empire City Casino by MGM Resorts. “We want to ensure we are opening safely for our employees and guests. There are numerous new operating procedures and protocols in place and we want to give our employees the time to be well-versed in this new way in which we will be operating – for their safety and the safety of our guests. Our extended soft opening for invited Mlife members leading up to the public opening on Sept. 21 allows us to manage the number of visitors in the first week and work towards the smoothest transition to our full opening.”

There had been rumors that racing at Yonkers might take a few weeks off to let the purse money build up, or race four – rather than five – days a week, but they turned out to be just that, rumors.

Racing five days a week, nine races a day, Faraldo thinks is the winning combination for his horsemen as well as those watching and betting on their product.

“You want other tracks or outlets to take your signal,” said Faraldo. “There’s something to be said for a continuity of signal. When people buy a signal, their customers want to see horses and races for a longer period of time throughout the course of the year so they can bet and they can get to know the horses. When you have 234 race dates it generates interest, it generates handle, it’s all off track, but it’s handle. So, I’m not about to give that up.”

As for the Night of Champions, Kelly Young, executive director of the Agricultural and New York State Horse Breeding Development Fund, expects extremely competitive racing.

“It’s an unusual year capped off with an unusual Night of Champions, but there are many great horses to celebrate and we’re looking forward to some awesome performances on Saturday,” said Young. “We have done our best to make this season as fulfilling for the horsemen and horses as possible. Horses are earning good money in New York.”

Each final for 2- and 3-year-olds competing at the Hilltop Oval goes for the usual $225,000.

Even though listed owners are allowed to attend, they cannot bring their friends and family as has been the norm, but again, there is no norm during a pandemic.

Owners that wish to attend need to call Young at 518-388-0224 by this morning (Sept. 11) to be put on an admissions list. As per state guidelines, owners will only be allowed on the apron and not in the grandstand or the paddock, but can be part of a winner’s circle presentation as long as they are wearing a mask and adhering to social distancing.

Fans are still not allowed to attend, as they are in neighboring states, and there is no timeline for when that will change.

Yonkers is scheduled to race until Tuesday, Dec. 22.