The historic Batavia Downs racetrack, shuttered since it was purchased for $2.5 million in public funds three years ago, could open again this summer if a major legislative push quietly begun at the State Capitol is successful.
The possibility stems from the addition of some well-placed lobbyists and the backing of a newly elevated area lawmaker to a more powerful post in Albany. As a result, the owners of the track think that they will, after several years of trying, be able to persuade the State Legislature to permit them to resume racing at the once-popular harness track.
"We have some momentum this time," said Martin Basinait, president of Western Regional Off Track Betting Corp., which in 1998 became the first OTB in New York to purchase a racetrack. OTB is a public-benefit corporation that must share its revenues with 15 counties and two cities.
But some other financially ailing tracks across
the state have been balking, insisting that they would be put at a disadvantage if required to compete against a racetrack owned, in essence, by area governments that do not have the same for-profit concerns as the privately owned tracks.
In recent years, the other tracks -- led in the past by Finger Lakes Racetrack near Canandaigua, which employed a sizable lobbying power at the state Capitol -- have been able to block OTB's attempt to reopen the track; Finger Lakes is owned by Buffalo's Delaware North Cos.
But OTB has since added three new lobbyists, including Patricia Lynch, who until December was Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's most trusted adviser, and Victor N. Farley, a former Erie County Republican chairman. The amount OTB is spending to retain its lobbying force at the Capitol has soared from $67,000 in 2000 to $120,000 this year.
OTB also has the backing of Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, whose new power during the last month as No. 2 leader in the Democratic-led house has backers of the track believing that they will be able to overcome the past political opposition.
Tokasz and state Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville -- whose Senate district includes Genesee County -- sponsored the bill; last year, the bill died in the Assembly, where it was sponsored by Assemblyman Richard A. Smith, D-Hamburg, who had a difficult time getting any legislation considered after he sided last spring against Silver in a failed leadership coup.
Financial feasibility doubted
While OTB officials cheer the prospect of reopening the 47-acre facility, racing industry officials privately wonder how OTB would be able to make a go of a track that for years lost money. Factors cited by them included everything from declining interest in parimutuel wagering to new state lottery games and the opening of Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls, Ont.
The track had as many as 1,000 trainers, farmers, horsemen, betting-window workers and others financially tied to it. But it was shut down by the state Racing and Wagering Board in mid-1998 after its owners, Barbara and James Samberg, were unable to cope with years of losses at the facility. At the time, it was the nation's oldest nighttime harness track.
Soon afterward, Batavia Downs was purchased for $2.5 million by the OTB corporation, which despite the red ink, insisted that it could make money for county governments across the region. Besides revenues from races at the track, OTB would make money from deals it makes to send and receive signals of races that are bet on by its customers.
But OTB ran into resistance. State law does not allow an OTB to run a racetrack, or do anything that can harm another racetrack's business. Those provisions were upheld by Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer in a 1998 ruling. Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg was among the initial objectors to OTB's running the track, arguing that it could not compete against the government-sponsored Batavia Downs. But Buffalo Raceway was given a financial nudge -- $300,000 a year over five years -- and its opposition has since disappeared.
OTB ownership is decried
Other tracks remain opposed, however.
Officials at Finger Lakes Racetrack declined to comment, but Paul D'Onofrio, a lobbyist for Monticello Raceway in Sullivan County, said OTB's ownership of an up-and-running Batavia Downs would be felt by tracks clear to the other side of the state as they compete for a dwindling share of betting dollars.
He called it "repugnant" that taxpayer dollars would be pumped into a track that a private company could not keep afloat and said it would be unfair to do a single bill to help one track when so many other issues are outstanding in the slowly dying racing industry in New York.
"If we have tracks already in a fragile wagering economy and you now have a resurfaced competitor who is funded by the government, you have to worry about who is going to go out of business," he said.
OTB's Basinait insisted that he is trying to work out deals with the other tracks to allay their concerns. Still, he suggested that opponents were merely spiteful; for instance, Monticello, he said, is upset because OTB refused to take its offer to buy Batavia Downs. Noting its legal obligation to make money for local governments, he dismissed contentions that OTB is not under the same kind of pressure as private racing companies.
"The day we stop making money, we are in serious jeopardy," Basinait said.
The push is on for action soon. Basinait wants to begin racing Aug. 1, but first OTB must get approval from the state Racing and Wagering Board. Before that, though, the State Legislature must change the law and say it is now legal for an OTB to not only own, but to operate a racetrack. He said legislators have been told that the track needs at least three months' notice from the time of approval until it can begin racing.
"I'm hopeful to do the bill early in the session," said Tokasz, who added that the bill is to start moving out of the committee process within two weeks.
3-year saga full of friction
In the Senate, the measure is scheduled to come out of the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee this week, according to Rath. Like other Batavia Downs backers, Rath sought to portray the matter as an economic-development issue, not a racing issue.
Though the significance of such a public-relations push may be lost to most, racing issues have always been among the most controversial through the years and the last to be decided before lawmakers end their session. And that might not be until this summer -- too late for Batavia Downs to open in August.
"I'm hopeful that we'll be able to do this on the economic value of having those two tracks in Western New York," Rath said of Batavia Downs and Buffalo Raceway.
Officials such as Rath use data from a study by the University of Arizona to contend reopening Batavia Downs would be worth more than $24 million to Erie County and $15 million to Genesee County.
The three-year saga has been filled with much infighting and finger-pointing between the region's politicians and racing officials. Genesee County officials, for instance, accused Buffalo Raceway of double-crossing them for initially backing the OTB purchase of Batavia Downs and then opposing it before state regulators. Erie County lawmakers even adopted a resolution at the time, asking state lawmakers to block the opening of Batavia Downs.
But now, with new deals and money crossing various tables, OTB officials think that this will be the summer for racing again at the track. But, just to be sure, OTB added its name to the roster of special interests at the Capitol paying big bucks for retaining lobbyists with insider ties.
"We needed better inroads into the Assembly than last year," Basinait said of the decision to hire Silver's former top aide as a lobbyist. "That's one of the reasons we brought Pat Lynch on."