By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO January 6, 2006 Empire Resorts management and horsemen at the Monticello Raceway have locked horns once again in the seemingly never-ending battle between the two sides.
The fight has reached a crescendo recently upon allegations by the Monticello Harness Horsemens Association that management withheld millions of dollars in revenue from the Video Lottery Machines and ended payments on the horsemens health insurance.
The Monticello Harness Horsemans Association responded by refusing to approve the annual simulcasting contract in order for the raceway to send out its signal to betting parlors outside New York State. The track has allegedly countered by cutting purses in half, according to the associations attorney, Joseph Faraldo.
In addition, the horsemens association has filed suit against the raceway in an attempt to put an end to the tracks testing for milkshaking in horses. A milkshake is a term used to described the process of giving a horse baking soda. The baking soda is believed to reduce lactic acid buildup in horses and reduce fatigue.
However, giving a horse a milkshake is considered illegal by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, as well as most major bodies which govern horse racing. The horsemen want the state board to conduct the tests rather than the track officials, whom they claim, lack the necessary equipment to handle the testing. Faraldo said the machines used by Monticello Raceway frequently make errors.
The major problem between the two sides stem from the state law which legalized the video lottery terminals (VLTs) with the provision that the horsemen would receive a portion of the proceeds. Initially, 29 percent of the revenue from the VLTs went to the track and 7.5 percent of the revenue was to be returned in the form of race purses. But, after nearly a year, the system was changed in part due to a court order which ruled that the distribution of the proceeds was unconstitutional.
According to Faraldo, the new law mandated that the track and horsemen agree on a share of the revenue in order for the VLTs to continue. In addition, the tracks share of the revenue went up to 40 percent. The two sides agreed on a deal in which the purses would be boosted with 9.25 percent of revenue from the gaming machines.
But for the last eight months, claimed Faraldo, the track has withheld the revenue. In total, he estimates the track has been holding onto $4 million in gaming revenue meant for the horsemen, according to accounting statements he has seen. He said that management does not believe they are required to give the horsemen anything, despite the agreement they have signed.
In September, the track allegedly cut off payments for the horsemens medical coverage, according to Faraldo. The medical coverage was part of the contract between the two sides. He called that move by the track to be the final insult.
So when the track came to the association for simulcasting approval a week before the new year began, the horsemen overwhelmingly said no.
On Wednesday, Empire Resorts spokesman Charles Degliomini said the move would hurt both sides, which share the profits from the simulcasting.
This is an industry that has just been coming back, he said. The video gaming machines have built up purses at the track.
It is a very dangerous game they are playing. It is harmful to us and it is harmful to them. Harness racing is a struggling industry, concluded Degliomini.
As for the testing, he said We are going to uphold the highest standards of testing.
The track has been conducting random tests on horses before races for years to determine the carbon dioxide levels in the blood of horses.
We believe that everybody who is interested in the integrity of the game should be advocating testing, he stated.
Degliomini said the tests are meant to create fairness among the horses and was shocked by the lawsuit. Trainers who are caught in violation can face fines or suspensions.
The system works and very much discourages the use [of milkshakes], he commented.
Faraldo said there is currently another lawsuit pending involving allegations that the raceway deprived the horsemen of $1.6 million through overcharges and deductions.
In the meantime, Faraldo said he has had little success in speaking with management, except for one lengthy meeting recently. He has been representing horseman associations for more than 30 years, including the Yonkers Horsemans Association, where he is also an owner of horses.
Faraldo said the current actions by the raceway were one of the worst abuses he has seen in quite a while.
This log jam has got to end, he concluded.