With the competing del Lago casino set to open, those whose livelihoods depend on the Farmington racetrack fear the worst if a deal isn't struck soon.
FARMINGTON — Jon Buckley has never experienced anything like it.
A thoroughbred racing trainer since 1977 at Finger Lakes racetrack, he is waiting — and hoping — he can keep working and living in Ontario County.
“We are uncertain as what this year will bring,” said Buckley, a Vermont native who owns two race horses and trains 16 thoroughbreds in Farmington near Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack.
For the first time at Finger Lakes, horsemen have no start date for the new season, which typically begins in April. The track employs 1,200 people, including trainers, assistants, grooms, farriers, jockeys, agents, maintenance workers, gate people, veterinarians and more.
“It’s up in the air. It’s difficult,” said Buckley, from a barn near the track where he strokes the long white nose of a thoroughbred, one of the horses he trains.
“This horse is leaving for Ohio,” said Buckley, "because of the uncertainty.”
Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack is under siege from the $440 million del Lago Resort and Casino, which is set to open Wednesday in Seneca County. Finger Lakes, with its 1,500 gaming machines, sees a tough road ahead competing with the Las Vegas-style del Lago. The glitzy, 24-hour casino with 2,000 slot machines and 89 gaming tables is projected to attract 3.2 million people annually for gaming, shopping, dining, live entertainment and to its hotel and spa opening later this year.
Finger Lakes expects a drop in gaming revenue because of its new competitor 27 miles to the east. Racing operations are the most affected, said Chris Riegle, FLGR president and general manager. Ten percent of FLGR gaming revenue goes directly to support Finger Lakes racing.
“We are worried, on pins and needles,” said Eileen Muller, a second generation owner/trainer. Her parents brought in race horses when the track opened in 1962.
Muller is a groom for Breakin the Fever, the 2016 Finger Lakes “Horse of the Year” that took top honors for the second consecutive year last season. She is worried for herself, the other families and businesses that rely on the track for their livelihood. It’s a small track and most of the horses are trained, housed and cared for locally, said Muller.
“We are kind of a family,” Muller said.
If the track closed she would have to sell her farm in Canandaigua, but Muller said she doesn’t want to leave the area where she said she can work in the safe, supportive, rural community.
David Brown is president of the Finger Lakes Horsemen Benevolent Protective Association. Of the 1,200 horses that run in a season at Finger Lakes, he said about 800 are boarded at area farms. In addition, about 40 local farms depend on Finger Lakes for purchasing horse needs. And it’s a lot. For example, in season Finger Lakes uses 1,000 bales of hay and straw per day.
The economic impact of the track is also far reaching.
Brown said it goes beyond the substantial business that employees and others connected with the track provide, from supermarkets to restaurants, rental and property tax dollars and more. New York-bred horses account for 70 percent of starts at the track. According to a 2015 study by New York City-based Appleseed Inc., horse racing at Finger Lakes pumps more than $180 million annually into the upstate economy.
“We all depend on racing,” Brown said.
Saw it coming
A 2013 law allowed new casinos to be built in New York state — and left the Finger Lakes track out of a zone that would have forced del Lago to guarantee purses at the track.
Brown knew that meant trouble. He has spent a lot of time in Albany and heading up a Finger Lakes horsemen campaign to gain support for leveling the playing field. The horsemen weren’t asking for special treatment, Brown said. Just that the governor and Legislature provide the same protections to Finger Lakes afforded every other track near a new casino.
Riegle said the 2016 state budget did give FLGR a gaming tax reduction when del Lago opens so that it could compete in the local gaming market.
“This was necessary because we are technically not in the same gaming region and the provisions in the original legislation would not have applied — despite the fact that our property only sits 27 miles to the west of del Lago and is the closest affected facility,” he said. “However, a provision to protect racing purse levels for Finger Lakes horsemen was not enacted at that time.”
The horsemen were told three years ago by the executive director of the Gaming Commission that it was "unintended consequences,” Brown said.
With uncertainty over the 2017 season, Brown added that FLHBA “has already lost three trainers and some farms are up for sale.” Estimates on financial loss for the track due to del Lago range from between 25 and 50 percent.
“We just don’t know,” Brown said. “By the time we know, we will be out of business.”
Brokering a deal?
Riegle said conversations are underway to find a solution, “to reach an agreement with the horsemen regarding the 2017 live racing season at Finger Lakes given the projected shortfall in the purse account due to declining gaming revenues.”
“We are committed to seeing this through and look forward to continuing that dialogue,” Riegle said.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, said negotiations taking place forecast a “short-term solution and a long-term plan.” Short of details, Kolb called it a “very constructive conversation” between del Lago, the horsemen, FLGR and state leaders.
“Everyone is negotiating in good faith,” Kolb said.
Michael Manikowski, economic developer for Ontario County, said his office is involved and he is optimistic about working with FLGR parent company Delaware North. Delaware North is a big business, with properties all over the U.S.
“They are not rookies,” Manikowski said.
Seeing it through
Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack in 2004 added gaming. In 2013, it put $12 million into a 33,000-square-foot expansion. Nearly 2 million visitors a year visit the facility on Route 96 with its more than 1,500 gaming machines, 448-seat Vineyard Buffet, Remedy Bar and Lounge, and thoroughbred racing.
Farmington Town Supervisor Peter Ingalsbe said the town has maintained its $1.10 per $1,000 of assessed value property tax rate, thanks to FLGR. The town banked nearly $1.8 million in 2016 video lottery terminal impact aid from New York state from taxes FLGR paid. That money has been used to upgrade and add on to the 1970s-built Town Hall, modernize with energy-efficient features, improve security, add technology and more.
The town has also made infrastructure improvements in the area of FLGR and is putting in a new water line with FLGR cash. Going forward, Ingalsbe said he isn’t counting on as much from what has been the county’s largest employer. He is also concerned about lost jobs and area businesses that rely on FLGR.
For Ontario County, FLGR in 2016 generated nearly $600,000 in VLT revenue. The county also receives 3.5 percent of sales tax on all taxable sales countywide, though there’s no way to know how much is generated at FLGR or in the surrounding businesses.
Ingalsbe said in talking with people who go to FLGR, they say they’ll check out del Lago. But they don’t envision going there regularly, they don’t want to drive that far, he said.
Race to the finish
A February 2016 Moody's Investors Service report predicted del Lago would “cannibalize the customer base of regional casinos in upstate New York and position del Lago to benefit from its competitive advantages.” Table games are the main advantage, giving the new facility an edge over Finger Lakes and Batavia Downs racinos, which are prohibited from offering table games.
Del Lago General Manager Jeff Babinski said he has focused on getting del Lago up and running. He talked about the nearly 1,500 permanent jobs created by the casino, with its 2,000 slot machines and 89 gaming tables that include 12 poker tables. An additional 300 or so jobs will staff del Lago’s luxury hotel, spa and related amenities. The casino and resort in the town of Tyre will also feature Savor New York—MacKenzie-Childs at del Lago, a retail outlet where local vendors will bring the Finger Lakes region to del Lago patrons with MacKenzie-Childs products and a variety of local fruits, cheeses, baked goods, wines and beers, and other local products.
“We do what is best to drive revenue, all for the advantage of consumers and guests,” Babinski said.
Del Lago is expected to generate about $250 million in annual gaming revenue, with about $70 million of that going to state and counties. Babinski said he sees del Lago boosting the regional economy and opening up more markets to give consumers choices. He talked about the excitement leading up to del Lago’s Feb. 1 opening and “a sense of pride from team members.”
Babinski said about 20 percent of del Lago employees are from Seneca County. Another 15 percent come from neighboring Ontario and Cayuga counties.
At FLGR, Riegle said that since gaming arrived in 2004, FLGR has “built an excellent and committed team that is focused on the customer.” That will continue, he said. FLGR directly employs 449 people, with the additional 1,200 people indirectly employed for racing operations.
What are ways FLGR is responding to the competition? Finger Lakes has been an integral part of the local community since 1962 and this facility will remain an economic engine for the region, said Riegle.
“We will continue to be who we are and deliver what our guests have come to expect from us,” said Riegle, mentioning “a convenient and safe gaming and entertainment environment and strong customer service in a comfortable atmosphere. While we will certainly monitor the competition, we will focus on making the guest experience when they are here the best possible one they can have.”