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Woerner Seeks Support Payments For Saratoga Horsemen From Schenectady Casino Operators

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner
Lucas Willard
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner (file photo)

An upstate New York state Assemblywoman is seeking an aid payment from the parent company that operates Rivers Casino in Schenectady to an organization that represents the harness racing industry in Saratoga Springs. 

The Saratoga Harness Horsepersons Association says the pandemic has brought uncertainty and decreased revenue to harness racing, which has had a presence at the Saratoga Casino Hotel, previously known as the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, for decades.

Now, the horsepersons’ group is accusing the operator of Rivers Casino, Rush Street Gaming, of refusing to pay state-obligated support payments to the SHHA. Under state law, gambling facilities submit the payments to offset losses suffered by racetracks. The terms of the statute were negotiated in 2013, and require that VLT gambling facilities provide support to maintain purse funding from that time.

Democratic State Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, whose 113th District includes the City of Saratoga Springs, appeared Tuesday at the Saratoga Casino Hotel, which hosts harness racing and operates as a VLT gambling facility.

“The Saratoga harnessmen depend on this funding to fund the purse accounts which allow racing to continue,” said Woerner.

Woerner said the SHHA has not received any of its quarterly purse support payments from Rivers since January 2020, three months before pandemic shutdowns were put in place.

Rush Street Gaming, which operates the Rivers Casino in Schenectady, is obligated to make the payments due to its proximity to Saratoga Springs – about 25 miles away. In 2019, the SHHA received about $4 million from Rivers, about a quarter of the funding distributed to the hundreds of horsemen through the organization’s purse account that year.

SHHA Secretary and Treasurer Joe Battaglia said the livelihoods of harness race industry families are endangered.

“Some of the greatest horses in harness racing have participated here and it would be a shame to jeopardize that and it’s also a shame that the livelihood of the members are jeopardized because of a budget provision that, frankly, has never been explained to us,” said Battaglia.

Included in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget proposal is a provision that would allow a delay in support payments to SHHA until six months after the end of the COVID pandemic. With the budget due April 1st, a provision in the State Senate’s proposed spending plan would reportedly reduce that deferment to three months.

Assemblywoman Woerner wants to see the payments made as soon as possible, saying a delay would hurt the harness racing industry’s workforce.  

“And I think it is time that the legislature, as we finish negotiating the budget, takes out this provision that the governor has put into his executive budget, and require that the two parties sit down and work out a reasonable compromise,” said Woerner.

Reached by WAMC, the Rivers Casino said in a statement that it was in a “precarious economic situation prior to the pandemic” and is now in a “far worse” position after a six-month shutdown last year due to COVID restrictions. The casino, a 24-hour facility prior to the pandemic, is back open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. at 25 percent capacity.

The statement from Rivers also mentions mention of the state’s statute that requires purse support payments, saying in part:

“The gaming statute never intended to place a struggling Rivers Casino on the hook to make up revenue declines at Saratoga Casino and Raceway caused by an unforeseen catastrophe like the COVID-19 pandemic, or a lack of performance at Saratoga. The budget proposal eliminates the windfall to Saratoga Casino and Raceway.”

The statement adds Rivers’ main priority is the “economic viability of Schenectady” and its employees.

Ray Gillen, chair of the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, also provided a statement defending Rivers and a delay in the purse support payment.  

Gillen’s statement reads in part:

“Asking the casino to make payments when their ability to operate is severely restricted is unfair. A common-sense approach is to suspend these payments until the Covid crisis is over.”

Woerner says Rush Street Gaming, which went public in 2020, can afford to make the support payments.

“They’re sitting on a quarter of a billion dollars in cash – clearly enough to both operate their casino and meet their obligations,” said Woerner. 

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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