As New York considers allowing commercial, non-Indian casinos, it's important not to lose sight of the symbiotic partnership between the state, existing racinos and horse racing in New York. This partnership, which must be continued and even enhanced if the state approves commercial casinos, has helped New York maintain its position at the top of the horse-racing industry nationally.
In turn, according to the 2012 New York State Equine Industry Economic Impact Study, the industry provides 33,000 full-time jobs for New Yorkers and an economic impact of $4.2 billion, while protecting 1.3 million acres of green space. But the success of this partnership depends on year-round racing in New York.
For many New Yorkers, horse racing is the final Triple Crown race at Belmont Park in the spring and events at Saratoga in the summer. But winter racing at Aqueduct, which runs from mid-December to late March, is equally important. Like any other year-round business, racing would suffer if it were shut down, even for a month. If winter racing is eliminated -- a suggestion heard in Albany and the New York Racing Association boardroom -- it will cripple the thoroughbred industry in the state.
Start with jobs. If you interrupt the cycle of year-round racing for a significant length of time, you disrupt the cycle of full-time employment it creates. If winter racing is shut down, the barn areas at Aqueduct and Belmont would empty out, and we could lose 3,000 to 5,000 year-round jobs in the blink of an eye -- with no guarantee that the horses, or the jobs, would return.
The New York breeding industry, fifth-largest in the country, would also take a huge hit. The New York-bred program is sustained in no small part by the purses earned in New York-bred races over the winter months. If you reduce the number of racing opportunities for New York-breds, you reduce the incentive to participate in the state's vibrant breeding industry, and curtail its development.
While programs across the country suffered significant contraction in 2012, the number of thoroughbred breeding mares in New York grew 43 percent, and the stallion population increased 17.6 percent. Without year-round racing, however, breeders wouldn't be motivated to bring in new horses, and the breeding stock already here could be shipped to states with more advantageous programs, taking thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue with them.
Aqueduct is a moneymaker for NYRA. The presence of the Resorts World racino has greatly reduced racing's physical footprint in the Aqueduct grandstand, in turn greatly reducing NYRA's overhead. But wagering on Aqueduct races was up 22.6 percent during last year's winter meet. Total handle was $513.8 million, a daily average of $6.6 million.
Revenue is up, the profit margin has grown; winter racing has a positive impact on NYRA's bottom line. When a long-awaited state-of-the-art simulcasting facility at Aqueduct finally opens, the balance sheets will look even better.
Finally, winter racing supports purses throughout the year. The revenue from Aqueduct's handle outpaces the amount of prize money distributed in the winter, allowing the fund to grow, and enabling NYRA to offer bigger purses at Belmont and Saratoga. This attracts better horses, producing high-quality racing and generating higher handle. To jeopardize this cycle would be simply bad business.
The casino debate is important, though the outcome is uncertain. What's not debatable is the positive impact of the revenue from video lottery terminals at Aqueduct, not only on the thoroughbred industry, but on the job market and the economy in every region of the state. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the legislature recognized this important partnership by continuing to invest in New York racing in the 2013-14 budget. Those resources must be used to improve racing and the fan experience, and to explore all options to improve the safety of horses and riders.
But the year-round cycle is as critical as the money. The cost of eliminating winter racing in New York, not only to the industry, but to the state as well, would be far too high.
Rick Violette is president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.