The Main Track: Future Grows Brighter for Finger Lakes

Racing at Finger Lakes in New York. (Courtesy Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack)

Welcome to the first installment of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.

Each week in this space we will spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing news that will stand out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it will generate.

Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.

But for now, it’s time for The Main Track to break from the gate with the story of a measure that will preserve racing at Finger Lakes which was a cause for celebration among the track’s horsemen and the hundreds of farms that comprise the New York state breeding program.

Due to the glitz, glamour and popularity of a high-profile circuit such as the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga, lost in the background are small tracks such as Finger Lakes Racetrack that nonetheless play a key role in supporting racing and breeding programs.

You will not find Grade 1 winners there, but they are places where horses from owners with limited resources and smaller breeding farms can provide their connections with the same thrills and emotional fulfillment found at major tracks.

Located in Farmington, N.Y., Finger Lakes faced an uncertain future until last week when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on March 16 an agreement that will provide funding from several sources to bolster racing for at least the next two years.

"Finger Lakes Racetrack is a key economic driver for the region that employs hundreds of New Yorkers, while also supporting the local agriculture industry, and this agreement will ensure its continued operation without an additional expense to taxpayers. All parties have come together with a shared goal of preserving this storied track and providing security for workers both on and off the track,'' Cuomo said in a statement announcing the deal, which covers 2017 and 2018 with an option for 2019.

Racing at Finger Lakes, which is owned by Delaware North Companies, has suffered in recent years despite the presence of a casino on the grounds. The situation became even more dire last month with the opening of a rival casino, del Lago Resort and Casino, just 30 miles away from Finger Lakes.

A few weeks ago, 10 racing dates were dropped from the 2017 calendar, lowering it to 145 days and removing about $1 million in available purse money. But with last week’s agreement those funds will be offset, helping struggling horseman to stay afloat financially at a racetrack crucial to the one of the leading breeding programs in the nation.

Horses race down the Finger Lakes stretch. (Courtesy Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack)

“It was vital to keep Finger Lakes in operation. It’s a racing facility in New York that’s basically supported by our breeding program so it’s a critical piece for the breeders in New York,” said Jeffrey Cannizzo, Executive Director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders. “Delaware North is contributing up to $1 million to purses to support racing there for the next two years, beyond what they are currently doing. The del Lago casino is also contributing $440,000 to the purse account as well. The third piece will come from the Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund. Upon a vote of its board at the end of the month, pending legal review, it will commit the equivalent of $1.5 million a year from its purse enrichment fund to Finger Lakes. Basically there will be over $2.1 million per year in purse money going to horsemen there to support racing there for the next two years.”

The importance of Finger Lakes to the roughly 275 breeding farms in New York and the state’s economy are reflected in statistics showing how the vast majority of starters at Finger Lakes are New York-breds. The top New York-breds might call NYRA home, yet without the option of racing lesser horses at Finger Lakes, the scope of the state’s breeding program will be negatively impacted.

“Why Finger Lakes is important to breeding and racing in New York is that 73 percent of all Finger Lakes starts were made by New York-bred horses,” Cannizzo said. “New York-breds earn 76 percent of all the purse money. They ran 1,330 races last year at Finger Lakes and 977 were won by New York-breds. They distributed $17.6 million in purses and New York-breds won 76 percent of that, which is about $13.4 million. The numbers alone tell the story of why it’s an important part of our breeding puzzle. If this arrangement was not done the way it was, there would have been a significantly reduced schedule there and there’s no telling how that would have worked out.

“Even NYRA owners need Finger Lakes because it gives them an option for horses who can no longer race at a high level. But beyond that, there are a lot of mom-and-pop owners-trainers there at Finger Lakes. They live in that community. Their relatives live there. Their kids go to school there. Their year-round employment is there. They don’t hop from racing jurisdiction to racing jurisdiction throughout the year. They call Finger Lakes home, which makes them different from some other segments of the racing industry.”

Cannizzo admits last week’s agreement was not a cure-all for Finger Lakes’ problems. Its meager handle figures are linked to its low average field size, which, according to Cannizzo is 6.9 horses per race, which is 51st among 63 U.S. racetracks.

That’s why Cannizzo has lobbied Delaware North to add a turf course at Finger Lakes, but that’s a matter for the future.

For now, what matters most is that Finger Lakes, which plays an underappreciated but much-needed role in an industry that employs more than 33,000 workers and generates $4 billion towards New York’s economy, will be on firm ground for two years.

It was a victory for the little guys in New York racing, and that’s surely some big and welcomed news.

The Also-Eligible List

Here are some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:

California Chrome will shuttle to Chile

Undefeated Malagacy wins the $900,000 Rebel Stakes

Fantasy ownership day at Laurel attracts ‘incredible’ 300 participants

Mastery recovering after successful surgery

Breeders’ Cup President Fravel visits Laurel and Maryland Governor Hogan

NYRA expands partnership with Fox Sports for live racing coverage

Fox Sports 2 to Televise Charles Town Classic

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