It’s been a New York tradition for over 100 years, and today Yonkers Raceway presents a new face to the world, COO Wayne Smith tells Ruari McCallion.
An evening’s harness racing at Yonkers Raceway has been part of the New York City entertainment landscape for over a century—since 1899, to be precise. But it’s more than that.
Blurry black-and-white films of evenings out in the 1920s and ’30s and the get-togethers of various characters in movies of the 1930s and ’40s make the track as much a part of the city as, say, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge or Radio City Music Hall. People all over the world have heard of Yonkers Raceway, and they associate it with exciting, close-finish harness racing.
However, that isn’t enough. Visitors to the city may have been disappointed for 16 months beginning in June 2005 because the Raceway was closed. That wasn’t because the crowds had drifted away, leaving nothing more than memories; it was because the Rooney family, owners of the track since 1972, were investing around $285 million in creating a new facility, Empire City at Yonkers Raceway—a multi-faceted entertainment jewel on a 97-acre plot just off I-87 in Westchester County. Yonkers Raceway has always been convenient for New Yorkers, offering a great evening out with exciting racing, a meal and good company. But in 2008, it offers more: a gaming facility to rival the competition in New Jersey, Connecticut and Philadelphia, and much more convenient. With a top prize on the video lottery terminals (VLTs) of $150,000, it accurately describes itself as “The Jackpot Next Door,” focusing on convenience and fun.
“We have two casinos within Empire City at Yonkers Raceway: Gotham Palace and the Grand Victorian Hall,” says Wayne Smith, chief operating officer. “As its name indicates, the Grand Victorian Hall has a Victorian architectural style and décor. Gotham Palace follows an art deco theme, reflecting the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. It’s a really beautiful facility.”
The development needed legislative changes, a big investment and a portion of courage. Tastes in entertainment change, and, after the “golden era” of the 1970s and ’80s, Yonkers’ customers were being tempted away to the casinos in Atlantic City and the rising gaming centers in Connecticut and Philadelphia. The Rooney family could have sold its prime real estate for development, but changes in New York State gaming and agricultural legislation encouraged them to invest in what is, essentially, a completely new facility.
“Legislation in 2001 gave horse racing and agriculture generally a shot in the arm. New York State is one of the largest producers of breeding horses in the country; racing is an important industry, and it was dying until the lawmakers changed the rules of the game,” says Smith. The Raceway is able to offer bigger prizes and to hold around 250 nights of racing during 2008. Bigger purses attract more participants, giving more exciting racing; better racing gets people in to watch and to take part, through betting or even ownership. More interest leads to more demand for the agricultural services—breeding, raising and training. It’s the addition of gaming machines (the VLTs) that has helped to boost the whole facility.
“Empire City at Yonkers Raceway has over 5,300 VLTs across the two casinos, with stakes ranging from a cent to $100; those are the machines that offer the $150,000 jackpot prizes,” he says. “Gaming has brought a whole new customer segment to us. Our racing mostly attracts men; gaming machines are the opposite. We see couples arrive and split up as they go in two different directions: the men to the track or the simulcast TV rooms, their spouses and girlfriends head off to the gaming halls. They will meet up again later and have a meal together before going home at the end of a fun evening. The boost to revenues from the casinos helps us to offer better prizes for the racing, which in turn attracts its followers, and the two support each other.” Support is part of the Yonkers ethos. It currently employs 1,300 people, bringing valuable employment to the area. While it was closed, the company kept its existing staff on the payroll; they didn’t worry about their future, and Yonkers Raceway kept its skills base when it reopened.
The demographic of the Empire City at Yonkers customer is much as it ever was; while the kids may be off to a disco or a club, those middle-aged and beyond get their fun at the gaming machines or in the excitement of the racetrack. Whenever a facility closes, it always takes a while to re-establish itself, but Yonkers seems to be doing a good job. It wasn’t initially helped by regulations that prevented the use of the term “slot machine” in advertising, but the business is able to show its machines on its Website and in commercials.
“We worked with the State Lottery, which operates the VLTs, over the last year or so, and we can use the word ‘gaming’ now,” says Smith. That the gaming machines are operated by the State Lottery is a confidence booster; the players know the play will be fair. New York State allows off-course betting in licensed facilities, so the simulcasts allow enthusiasts to follow their passion wherever racing is taking place. Regular updates to the gaming machines keep the Empire City at Yonkers always fresh and welcoming.
“The Lottery leases the gaming machines from the manufacturers, although we have input. We, the Lottery and the suppliers sit down together regularly and redesign the floor layout if it’s appropriate. There’s always something new, whether weekly or monthly. It’s an evolution process we go through, to keep Empire City at Yonkers Raceway attractive,” he says. It’s not only the customers and the horse industry that gains. “In 2007, we contributed over $250 million in taxes to the Education Fund in New York.” Truly, that’s the real jackpot next door. www.yonkersraceway.com