New York Racetracks Become Gambling Destinations Once Again

Horse racing was the first sport in America, beginning in the late 18th century when owners would test their best steeds against one another. The first sporting venues constructed in the country were racetracks. In 1950, the four most popular sports in the United States were baseball, college football, boxing, and horse racing. After that began a slow decline. By the early 2000s, the only thing saving the sport was the addition of slot machines to the racetrack. When this new hybrid of a gambling destination, known as a racino, came to New York after 2001, it revived several of the state's historic tracks.

Saratoga Casino and Raceway

Saratoga Race Course is one of the most fabled shrines in horse racing. The facility is for thoroughbreds and will never be associated with slot machines. Across town, however, is the Saratoga Raceway for standardbreds. Although it is one of America's most beautifully landscaped tracks, Saratoga Raceway has struggled in the shadow of its famous neighbor since it opened in 1941. In 2004, Saratoga Raceway became the first New York track to offer gamblers video lottery games.

Yonkers Raceway at Empire City Casino

Horses first lined up at the starting line at the Empire City Race Track in Yonkers in 1899, established by the Empire City Trotting Club. The track closed after founder William Clark's death the next year, and automobiles began circling the oval. Horses came back in 1907, this time with thoroughbreds. Harness racing returned in 1942, and crowds would often reach 50,000 on race night. The racing plant fell into disrepair until 1972 when it was purchased by members of the Rooney family, owners of football's Pittsburgh Steelers. Slot machines arrived in 2006, followed by over $50 million in renovations. Today it is one of the Empire State's closest gambling destinations to New York City.

Vernon Downs Casino Hotel

Vernon Downs staged its first race on the night of July 1, 1953, with Bob Abbe II flashing across the wire to win at 19-1 odds. The revolutionary 6-furlong oval immediately found favor with horsemen, and several world records were set at the track. Over the next half-century, the venue west of Utica suffered financial hardships and went into receivership in 2006. Jeff Gural, a harness racing fan and New York City financier, bought the track and transformed Vernon Downs into a central New York destination for horse racing, live entertainment, and slot machine gambling. Also built into the track is a 173-suite hotel and indoor swimming pool.

Finger Lakes Gaming and Race Track

Finger Lakes Race Track began hosting thoroughbred racing on May 23, 1962. For many years, the track catered to vacationers in the Finger Lakes region with a meet staged mostly through the summer months. Competition from New York's participation in Off-Track Betting during the 1980s helped trigger financial problems at Finger Lakes. Several times, the track almost went dark forever. Finally, a $10 million infusion of cash and the introduction of video slot machines in 2004 put the track, located 25 miles south of Rochester, on secure financial footing.

Batavia Downs Casino

In the small town of Batavia, New York, in Genessee County, harness racing fans were introduced to a new phenomenon on September 20, 1940. Until that time, horse racing was exclusively contested during the day. Batavia offered the first regular nighttime racing under the lights and is the oldest lighted harness track in the country. Since then, harness racing has been contested primarily at night in most places. Those lights, however, went out in 1997. The track re-opened in 2002 after the passage of legislation allowing slot machine gambling in New York State. The new racino opened in 2005 with an attendance of 5,000: more than twice the crowd that showed up for the opening of the racetrack 66 years earlier.

Casino-style gambling has saved horse racing in New York state. There are now nine racinos in the Empire State that offer slot machines and video poker. Now that these revived tracks are once again gambling destinations, they are looking to make the next step. Some of the racinos are being allowed to add table games to become full casinos, launching yet another chapter in the saga of the state's historic tracks.