By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO June 22, 2004 In eight days, thousands of people are expected to flock to Monticello Raceway for the opening of 1,800 Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs).
These machines will then become the closest the New York City metropolitan area gets to slot machines until next year, when Aqueduct and Yonkers Raceway obtain VLTs.
But Cliff Ehrlich, vice president of operations for Mighty M Gaming at Monticello Raceway, believes the people will still flock to Monticello for the natural beauty of this area.
That is what brings people here, he said. This facility is going to be a magnet for socializing.
Indeed, Fun and Friendly is the slogan of the racino.
VLTs lit up the raceways first floor on Friday, as media from as far away as New York City and Binghamton came to tour the facility.
According to Tom Aro, chief operations officer for Empire Resorts (which owns the raceway), 550 employees have been hired full-time. Eighty percent of the workforce hails from Sullivan County.
Close to 500 surveillance cameras will watch the facility. The machines, with jackpots as high as $50,000, include names like The Munsters, Betty Boop, and Double Diamond. They return vouchers instead of quarters, but the computerized sound of the coins will be heard when you win. Games start as low as five cents and reach upwards of $10 a play.
An overwhelming amount of the games have cartoon themes. Chris Palmer, director of Video Gaming Machines at the racino, said the reason was because cartoons have bonus features, which make it more interesting. You can win more money on the bonus rounds. . . . It is a little bit of entertainment . . . instead of just watching three wheels go around.
Nightly entertainment will be a part of the show. Strawberry Fields, a Beatles cover band whose members were part of the Beatlemania Broadway show of the 1990s, will open the festivities during its first week.
John Manzi of the marketing department for Mighty M Gaming at Monticello Raceway, and the host of the acclaimed Juke Box Radio on WSUL Sunday evenings, will be spinning 50s and early 60s music Mondays on Bebop Night.
Tuesdays will feature Cool Jazz by the heralded jazz musician Louis Landon. Sunday through Thursday will feature $20,000 Money Tree drawings.
For the hungry, a 350-seat buffet, deli, pizzeria and other food outlets will be available. A cocktail lounge and bar area will also be included on the first floor, which can hold about 5,000 people. Admission will be free.
The VLTs themselves will be open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. There are over 2,000 parking spaces.
A players club card will allow customers to accumulate points like frequent-flyer miles. The points can be redeemed for cash, prizes, buffet meals and special events.
The facility will still allow for betting on Monticello Raceway, as well as simulcasting throughout the country, on its third floor.
Horseracing will continue to be a staple at the track for a long time to come, pledged Ehrlich.
We have promised the horsemen that we will always have racing, he explained. The racino is the best thing that could ever happen to the horsemen. They will get the full percentage [of the VLT takeout] allowed by law.
The track has agreed to guarantee barn space for the horsemen for at least another year. This was the first time the track guaranteed the space, said Ehrlich.
Horsemen have expressed concerns that the barn space will be taken away in the future when the casino arrives. Ehrlich said that he wants to leave all options available regarding the barn area in case we develop the property.
Near the machines, Manzi placed photos of some of the landmark events at the raceway over the last 46 years photos of the grandstand filled with thousands of people at its opening in 1958 and of Silk Stockings, the female horse that beat male foes for the most lucrative prize in all of horse racing in the $250,000 purse of the OTB Classic in 1975, held at Monticello Raceway.
The winner could have taken gold bars at the time, said Manzi. If they had chosen to do so, they would have made over a million dollars in ten years time.
Ehrlich estimated the construction costs of the racino to be between $25-$27 million.
The track donated $5,000 worth of fireworks to the Village of Monticello for a fireworks display July 3 at the Town of Thompson Park. The track gave up its fireworks show so that families could enjoy the fireworks together, he explained. He called it the best fireworks in Sullivan County.
Village of Monticello Manager Richard Sush, who was present, called the site amazing. (Sush and Mayor James Barnicle are hoping to obtain funding from the track to help pave Jefferson Street, the only village road accessible to the track from Monticello.)
Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce President Jacquie Leventoff viewed the racino as a major positive for business in Sullivan County.
I see what it represents for the people of Sullivan County, she said. The businesses will benefit. Gas stations, restaurants, motels . . . employees and paychecks.