Vote validates Saratoga Casino's $30M bet

Albany Business Review

Jim Featherstonhaugh will tell you nothing really changed in his life last night, when a majority of New York voters agreed to allow full-blown casinos to be built.

At the least, though, the vote vindicated the calculated bets that Featherstonhaugh and the other owners of Saratoga Casino & Raceway are making.

They are investing $30 million to expand and set themselves up for what Featherstonhaugh promises to be an “aggressive” bid for a state license to run a Vegas-style casino.

What that means is the ability to have human dealers running table games, from blackjack and baccarat to poker and roulette. Until voters decided otherwise last night, state law had forbidden those (but allowed slot machines and electronic versions of those table games).

Both are found at Saratoga Casino & Raceway, the most-visited attraction in the 11-county Capital Region, according to our Book of Lists research.

Featherstonhaugh is one of the most vocal casino supporters in the state. He is a noted government lobbyist and also president of the New York Gaming Association, which involves Saratoga Casino and its brethren around the state that also combine horse racing with slots and other electronic or computerized gambling.

Featherstonhaugh owns 6 percent of Saratoga Casino & Raceway. He owns 25 percent of the voting shares of the parent company, Saratoga Harness Racing Inc., which also controls half of the nearby Gideon Putnam resort, a resort casino in Colorado and part of a track in Kentucky.

In prior interviews, even he has conceded the state is already saturated with gambling. But the election results of Nov. 5 only made him more excited about what lies ahead.

“The margin was a little bigger than even a cockeyed optimist like me had expected,” Featherstonhaugh said. “And I think what it said to me is, the economic message really resonated with voters.”

Voters in the four core counties of the Capital Region rejected the casino push, 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent.

In Saratoga County, the casino amendment failed by a slightly wider margin, with 54 percent of voters saying expanded gambling is a bad bet.

Featherstonhaugh says he’s not bothered by the results. He offered a few explanations: moral convictions that were never going to change; newspaper editorials against gambling; and, a desire by some to protect what they already have from out-of-state competition swooping in.

As he was rattling off those reasons, I heard his smart phone ding with an alert. It was an email, Featherstonhaugh said, of a statement from a chamber of commerce supporting the raceway’s expansion and upcoming bid for a casino license.

The raceway is different from the better-known Saratoga Race Course. That historic track is twice as old, and runs thoroughbred races, on a flat track, with jockeys riding the horses. The raceway runs harness racing. The turns on the track are slanted, or banked. The horses race at a specific pace, pulling their jockeys, who ride in a two-wheeled cart.

Featherstonhaugh says he expects construction on the expansion to begin in late spring or early summer.