Saratoga Harness Horseperson’s Association to host Legislators Appreciation Day

Ken Weingartner

Hightstown, NJ — The Saratoga Harness Horseperson’s Association will host a Legislators Appreciation Day on Tuesday (Aug. 31) at Saratoga Casino Hotel and Raceway. The event, which will run from 11:30 a.m. through the end of that day’s races, is an opportunity to recognize the work of legislators to protect the track and the jobs created by harness racing.

Earlier this year, the SHHA successfully fought a proposal that would have allowed the Rivers Casino & Resort to end state-mandated racing support payments for the SHHA’s purse account. The payments were required as part of state legislation in 2013 that enabled the expansion of gaming in New York because of the proximity of Rivers Casino and Saratoga Casino Hotel.

Rivers Casino is in Schenectady, 22 miles from Saratoga Casino Hotel. The racing support payments were to protect against the decline in video lottery terminal (VLT) revenue at Saratoga, which was the state’s first racino, opening in 2004. Rivers Casino, which offers full table games, opened in 2017.

The elimination of River Casino’s racing support payments obligation was included in then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget.

“It’s not unusual that there are things in the initial proposed budget by the governor that do not end up ultimately in the budget voted on by the legislature,” said Sarah Burger, the SHHA’s attorney. “But seeing it in there, and knowing what was at stake for us, was certainly an event in and of itself. We needed to lobby in Albany to get it out. We needed to be aggressive because we are dependent on that revenue stream.”

Prior to the Saratoga racino opening, the SHHA made a substantial financial investment for necessary casino-area improvements at the facility. The contributions were recognized in an amendment to the pari-mutuel law that allowed the horsepeople and breeders groups a modest percentage of the gross gaming revenue from the VLTs.

“The SHHA is vested itself financially in the VLT gaming to begin with, going back to the early 2000s,” Burger said. “We had skin in the game. This was an investment for us. This is not a subsidy. This is a revenue stream that we participate in.”

Burger, SHHA President Jeff Cantine, and SHHA Treasurer Joe Battaglia spearheaded the effort to get the proposal removed from the budget.

“This is jobs, and not just on the track racing,” Burger said. “It’s agriculture. It’s farms, it’s the breeding, blacksmiths, veterinarians. There is so much that goes into this that people don’t know. Without that continued revenue stream, we were facing the end.”

Among the state legislators being recognized next week are Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, who represents Saratoga; Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow, chair of the Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee; and Sen. Joseph Addabbo, chair of the Senate Racing, Gaming, and Wagering Committee.

“We want to show them our appreciation for what they did for us in helping to promote and keep Saratoga alive and viable for the horsemen,” SHHA Director John Hoagland said. “It’s not just to honor the legislators, but to educate them as to what harness racing is all about. This is not a game, it’s an industry. It’s an industry that supports a lot of people who depend on harness racing to make their living.”

As part of the Appreciation Day, legislators will get to see activity in the paddock before and after races. Some will get to ride in double-seat jog carts, and some will get to ride in the starting car.

“We don’t plan on this being a one-time thing,” Hoagland said. “Moving forward, we want to continue doing these kinds of things. I think it’s going to be an eye-opening day for a lot of those lawmakers who really don’t see or realize that it’s not just get on the track and go. It’s a whole process and it takes time.

“I think it’s going to be a great time. We’re excited about it.”

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