Finger Lakes Casino and Racetrack: Thoroughbred Racing Industry at a Crossroads

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

The mural stretches along the west wall of the clubhouse, some 580-square feet of pictures, programs and newspaper clippings that document 50 years of Finger Lakes Casino and Racetrack history.

There’s a photo of the Everett Blazey farm that once sat right along Route 96. Between 1960 and 1962 it was transformed into a thoroughbred racetrack, and on May 23, 1962, the first race was run.

Memoirs from the visits by legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker and former teen riding star Steve Cauthen are prominent.

Shoemaker made Finger Lakes a stop on his 1989 farewell tour. Cauthen came to town with Dedicated Rullah and together they won the 1978 New York Breeders’ Futurity. That was three months after Cauthen rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown; there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since.

A 2007 victory in the Wadsworth Memorial Handicap by 2003 Kentucky Derby champion Funny Cide is also immortalized on the wall. It’s the only time a Kentucky Derby winner has raced in Farmington, and 11,429 fans came to watch his career finale. That’s a month worth of attendance today.

As the track celebrates its golden anniversary, management knows the past was special. There’s also a belief the best years are very much in the past. The challenge for management, and the horse owners and trainers, is to figure out is how to ensure Finger Lakes’ existence for another 50 years, or at least another 10.

They want to continue to make memories, not become one.

They want to trumpet more home-grown New York racing stars like Fio Rito and Tin Cup Chalice. They want to be a place where you never know who will show up.

Like in 1976, when comedian Joan Rivers stopped by and even joined the late Ross Morton in the rooftop announcer’s booth. That summer of 1976 is also the same year Jan Keuer first visited the track. She still hasn’t left.

“I was just a horse-crazy little girl,” said Keuer, 52, a lifelong resident of nearby Waterloo. “I was a teenager; I had plans of going to college and being a nurse, like my mom.”

Instead, she fell in love with the sport of horse racing and it became her life. She started as a groom, became an assistant trainer, got her own training license and now works as the assistant trainer for the Mike LeCesse stable.

“This is what I like,” Keuer said. “I like the horses, I like the racing.”

But will her job at Finger Lakes take her to retirement? A day at the races just isn’t on the every-day — or every-year — itinerary for very many area residents anymore.

The on-track handle — the amount wagered with Finger Lakes’ tellers and self-bet machines — plunged to an average of a little over $50,000 per race day in 2012. In the mid-1990s, that number was five times higher, track president and general manager Chris Riegle said.

Somewhere around 95 percent of all money wagered on races at Finger Lakes, about $145 million for the 2011 season, was bet off-track. That’s from places like Western OTB, The Meadows in Pittsburgh, online wagering accounts and casinos in the Caribbean.

“It doesn’t matter how well you do at your own facility, you’re dependent on that simulcast outlet,” Riegle said.

As it is, horse racing in New York, as well as most other states, is subsidized by slot-machine revenue at track “racinos.” Nearly 60 percent, around $10 million, of the horsemen’s purse account at Finger Lakes comes from monies generated by New York State Lottery video slot machines on the track’s casino floor. “It’s a subsidy, no doubt about it,” Riegle said. “But on the flip side, there are lots of industries that get subsidies because of the jobs they provide. We employ 514 people. About 275 are in racing. There are another 1,400 people who earn a living on the backside; farriers, vets, grooms, trainers.

“You drive down the Thruway and see all those farms, that hay, the straw. That all ends up here. I mean, think about it, we live in a town called Farmington.”

The subsidies are possible because pushing the button on Finger Lakes’ slot machines is appealing to hundreds or thousands of people every day, too. Net revenue on the 1,191 machines was $11.1 million in April alone.

Not many of those gamblers ventured outside or upstairs to watch the races, though. The grandstand is a vast expanse of nothingness on most racing days.

“When we first owned horses, you couldn’t even get a seat,” said Jane Winchell of Farmington.

She and her late husband, Douglass, became first-time racehorse owners in 1965 with a gelding named John Canoe. “We’d have to stand on the stairway to see our horse race.”

Winchell no longer owns horses but rarely misses a day of racing. She can now have 200 seats all to herself, if she wants. Where did everyone go? Part of it is that horse racing is a cerebral pastime.

Dissecting past-performance lines in Daily Racing Form is handicapping homework that few in the under-40 crowd have the patience, or desire, to do. That’s hardly a unique-to-horse racing phenomenon.

“I think it’s society. We’re an on-demand, Netflix, push-button-start-on-the car society,” Riegle said. “My kids, I talk about going fishing or hunting and they’re saying, ‘What, and wait for a fish to bite? I have to wait for a deer to come by? I can shoot 1,000 aliens on the computer in that time.’ ” Gamblers aren’t much different. The slot machines don’t take an ounce of brainpower to operate.

On many, the button could easily be pushed 50 or more times in a minute by a bettor. Barely 100 yards away on the track, it takes nearly four hours to run nine races.

There is somewhere between 23 and 26 minutes between each race. “It’s a slow, thinking game,” Riegle said. “It’s chess, not checkers.” But too many gamblers want speed checkers and have gravitated from the races to the slot machines.

Considered the savior of New York racing when they were proposed throughout the 1990s, the video slots may actually have hastened the sport’s demise.

Finger Lakes’ gaming floor opened in 2004 and the horsemen get 8.75 percent of revenues for their purse account. But while they get part of the profits, fewer money is being bet on their races.

“If a guy brought $200 to the track, now he’s spending $100 of it on the slots,” said Dave Brown, president of the Finger Lakes’ Horsemen’s and Benevolent Association.

“I liken it to bringing a little puppy home and then he starts to chew and scratch the furniture. The slots were our little puppy and he’s starting to eat the furniture now.”

Riegle said that unless there is a spike in wagering — and that’s highly unlikely — then slicing the number of racing days will be necessary. There are 163 days on the 2012 calendar that runs April 20 to Dec. 7.

Something closer to the track’s original racing schedule 50 years ago — maybe Memorial Day to Labor Day — makes much more sense to Riegle.

That idea is preposterous, says George Beech, 54, a trainer and horse owner at Finger Lakes for the past 23 seasons.

“If you cut racing, right away you’d kill a lot of how people here survive,” said Beech, a native of Jamaica who became a U.S. citizen in 2009. He lives in Farmington and his three children were educated in the Canandaigua school system.

“They don’t care about the little people here,” said Beech, who has a six-horse stable. “This is how we put a roof over our head and food on the table. If you cut racing, you take away from the little guy. The tractor-trailer driver. The farmer. The groom. The blacksmith. The trainer. I don’t see how that works.”

Nonetheless, Riegle said it will be necessary. There is a finite amount of money for the horsemen’s purse account, and that’s where the purse money for each race comes from. The lowest-level horses run for a total purse of $9,000 per race, with 60 percent ($5,400) going to the winning owner. Too many other tracks offer bigger purses. Cutting race days and reallocating that money to create larger purses would attract more horses, Riegle believes. “We have to reduce the days,” he said.

Who suffers if that happens? The little people. The people that have kept the racing going for decades. The small stables that need each of their five or six horses to get 15 to 20 starts a year so they can grind out a living.

“There are 116 trainers at Finger Lakes and maybe 10 have a 30-horse barn,” Brown said. “The rest have four, five, 10 horses. This track wouldn’t survive without the little guys.

Those people all live here, their kids go to school here. We don’t have kings here. We don’t even have any princes here. They’re common, ordinary people.”

But the common sports fans in the community don’t come to the track anymore. The frequent complaint/observation is that the race track crowd is old. People who came to the track 20 and 40 years ago with their father or grandfather are still coming, but their own kids aren’t.

“You don’t see a lot of younger people hanging out anywhere,” counters Alex Waldrop, chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “They’re online.”

And thus, the salvation of racing might be via the internet. Twitter and Facebook could provide hope for a better tomorrow.

“Young people have embraced social media,” Waldrop said. “Where we are seeing the most engagement are on social media platforms. The sport itself lends itself to be followed on those platforms. It’s data-rich but also story-rich. People love to talk about their experiences, their horse.

“Now, are those individuals who are engaged online wagering on it? Maybe not right now.”

So luring people to the track isn’t nearly as important as getting them to watch and play the races from somewhere, anywhere. OTB, their home computer or their smart phone. Waldrop said it’s not too late to reel them in.

“If we failed at anything as an industry, we failed at that,” he said. “We hear it’s a dying industry. No, frankly, it’s an evolving industry. If you’re going after the younger crowd, you have to meet them where they are.”

Brown agrees: “You have to take the track to the people.”

And it must be done before memories are all they can tweet about.