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Racetracks Place Survival Odds on Casinos

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Racetracks Place Survival Odds on Casinos

Economy

Racetracks Place Survival Odds on Casinos

Racetracks Place Survival Odds on Casinos

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This is part two of a two-part report.

Hear Part 1 of This Report

A new television commercial for Empire City Gaming/Yonkers Raceway has begun airing in the New York region, and it's promoting the newest trend in gambling: "racinos." A combination of a casino and horse or dog track, racinos may sound like an odd hybrid of a term, but they have helped bring back racetracks from what has been a decades-long decline.

In the ad, a man walks down a city street. He encounters the flashing lights of a slot machine. In the next scene he's in a barber's chair scanning a newspaper when he spies, out of the corner of his eye, another slot machine. (At this point things are very much beginning to look like the classic episode of the Twilight Zone where a tourist in Las Vegas is chased by a "one-armed bandit.")

And in the next scene, the slot-stalked protagonist is shown all alone against a veritable sea of slot machines.

It's not entirely clear if the ad is for a gambler's helpline or a treatment center. But then a yellow logo promises 5,300 slot machines. A peppy theme song stands in contrast to the earlier stark scenes. By the end of the commercial, Empire City is portrayed as the happiest place on Earth.

Slot machines — or "video gaming machines" as they're officially known — at Empire City have helped revive what was an otherwise dying racetrack.

'Slim Left Town'

Frank Drucker, director of publicity for Empire City, walks through the cavernous gaming room with a sense of bemusement.

Drucker is a horse guy, having dedicated much of what he calls his "misspent youth" scanning racing forms and cursing the drivers (in harness racing they're drivers not jockeys) for not going to the whip until the home stretch. The 5,000 slot machines laid out before him are more colorful than the drivers' silks, need less upkeep than a champion horse and, by any reasonable estimation, have saved the track's harness racing schedule.

"Without the video games here, what's the old adage? The future of Yonkers is slim and none, and slim left town," Drucker says.

Empire City's slots room, which has more machines than in any single casino in Atlantic City, is clean, smoke-free, and during the week filled mostly with older people from nearby. The Bronx is a few miles to the south, Long Island is right over the Triborough Bridge, and northern New Jersey is just a few minutes away.

In addition to the slots, Empire City books rock bands that tend to draw a younger crowd. A U2 cover band named 2U has been back several times and a Bon Jovi cover band also plays often.

Push open a door a few feet from the Lucky Larry's Lobstermania machine and a visitor is greeted by a blast of air refreshingly brisk and quiet compared to the clanging of the slots — until an announcement cuts through the night air. "Two minutes to post!"

Here, in Yonkers, against the backdrop of mid-rise apartment buildings and the New York State thruway is a pristine harness track, and on it trotters and pacers continue a tradition begun in 1899.

'Horses Go Where the Money Is'

Yonkers raceway once played host to the millionaires and the multitudes. Duke Ellington attended the races. Ed Sullivan welcomed on his program the occasional horse and driver. But after the 1950s, all racing faced a perilous decline, and harness racing suffered.

A few years ago, Yonkers raceway was losing an estimated $5 million a year, and before the slots were installed, the raceway had shut down. But now with slots pumping money in, the racing purses have gone up and the quality of the racing has increased.

"You put the money up, the horses go where the money is," says Frank Calica, handicapper and horse trainer.

While other tracks in New York state continue to struggle even though they, too, have just installed slot machines, places like Yonkers and Dover Downs in Delaware are booming. Calica doesn't think of the video-gaming machines as a necessary evil at all but rather a boon.

The machines "definitely helped the game" as well as boosted the fund that promotes breeding of harness horses, according to Calica. "You go to the sales and even the baby horses are bringing in much more than they used to only because of the money they take out of the slots," he says.

For all his appreciation of the slots, however, Calica barely dabbles with them.

Similarly, the dedicated slots players owe a lot to the track — after all, saving racing and adding to the state education fund were the twin justifications for the state's decision to legalize video-gaming machines.

But the people who enjoy the machines have almost no penchant for the horses, and the horse handicappers find the slots mindless. They're two different types of gamblers: horse players love the quantitative challenge and trying to figure out the quirks of an actual living breathing animal. Slots players enjoy the trance-like experience of staring at spinning wheels or flashing symbols, punctuated by frequent endorphin-releasing jackpots.

But the two activities are intertwined, to the point that casinos rescuing racetracks may be becoming a self-perpetuating trend, says Michael Pollack, publisher of the Gaming Industry Observer.

"As more racetracks become racinos, it puts pressure on the remaining racetracks to get gambling to support their purses, so it feeds on itself," Pollack says. He adds that in terms of public policy, it would be a fair question to ask whether saving racing is a good reason to legalize gambling.

Pollack says the jury is still out. But more and more states seem to have reached a verdict. Eleven states allow racinos and six more are considering legislation to permit them. As long as the money is flowing, the casino industry and government show no sign of breaking stride.

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