If you are a sports fan and have been reading the newspapers and/or social media in the past few weeks, you are certain to have read a lot about free agency. The sports world, specifically baseball and football, has been abuzz of late with rumors, terms and figures of different proposed and agreed-to contracts. With baseball seeing some of the biggest contracts in its history and NFL signings coming fast and furious, fans are inundated with terms of these agreements. Long-term deals have been agreed to and in one instance, a previously unheard of thirteen year contract was signed by a Major League player. While those talks were well chronicled in the sports world all winter long, there was a much lesser-known negotiation going on right here in our back yard at Saratoga Casino Hotel.
With the time on the current contract beginning to run short, the Saratoga Harness Horseperson’s Association (SHHA) engaged in discussions with the administration of Saratoga Casino Hotel. The goal was to secure a fair deal that would guarantee the security of the horsemen and women who participate both on a part-time and full-time basis in harness racing at Saratoga. The two sides met several times before ironing out a deal that was agreed to last week. Some of the standout aspects of the new contract are the duration of it and its inclusion of a full backstretch. The recently signed contract is for seven years! The deal, in principle, will guarantee 170 race dates each season over the course of the seven years of its duration. To put that number into perspective, previous to the installation of VLTs (VGMs) in 2004, the meet at the Spa consisted of 129 race dates. Over the course of the 129 days, purses were $2.9 million for a year. Since ’04, over $150 million has been directly added to purses through VLT revenues.
Another major aspect of the deal that the SHHA liked was the guarantee of a stable area for the duration of the contract. There are multiple tracks in New York State that do not have a barn area, let alone one that is funded and maintained by the track. These tracks’ races are comprised of ship-ins, a combination of horses coming from out of town and locals but those that are stabled at farms in the area. The guarantee of the stable area was a key sticking point for the horsemen. As one trainer told me, “this was the best news I could get. The convenience of having a track to train on and no stall rent are keys for us as trainers and for our owners, as well. Also, being able to race our horses and walk them a few hundred feet back to their homes is huge. It’s great for the horses and it’s great for us.” When I spoke with the trainer about the general feelings of the contract as it pertains to the horsemen and women, he told me “having the security of a long-term deal is just tremendous for us trainers and our owners. With the purse structure that is in place and the facilities we are afforded in regards to the barn area, we are very fortunate and happy to get a seven year deal. I was assuming maybe a three year deal would be ironed out since I know some other tracks have gotten contracts of that length. To hear it is seven is just fantastic job security and puts a lot of minds at ease. Big time kudos to our representatives for working out such a horseman-friendly contract and a big thank you to the track for making it happen.”
Both sides felt that reaching such an amicable agreement was beneficial not only to their groups but also for the sport of harness racing in a city that has hosted it for now 78 seasons, and counting. SHHA President Tom McTygue credited the strong working relationship between the SHHA and Saratoga Casino Hotel for the new agreement. “This demonstrates the commitment of casino ownership and management in continuing the tradition of high-quality racing for many years to come,” the association’s president said. The SHHA represents the 850 owners, trainers, drivers and grooms directly involved at Saratoga Harness.
The new agreement was also praised by local officials and the New York State Commission who cited the continuation of harness racing as an asset to both the county and the state. Members of the Assembly and State Senate joined the Acting Executive Director of the NYS Gaming Commission in lauding both sides in coming up with a deal beneficial to all those involved. They cited, among other things, how important harness racing is to Saratoga’s economy (there are over 600 team members employed at Saratoga Casino Hotel in addition to the horsepersons involved in the sport) and the impact it has on regional agriculture and equine businesses. Each year Saratoga Casino Hotel generates approximately $20 million towards New York’s agriculture business, a number that encompasses purses won by owners, trainers and drivers who then re-invest in purchasing feed from local farms as well as receiving veterinary and blacksmith services. In addition to those whose livings are dependent on harness racing, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of fans of the sport that enjoy coming to the track, wagering from home or simply being a part of the racing at Saratoga Harness. This deal, indirectly of course, is for those fans as well. With the first month of the 2019 racing season now behind us at Saratoga Casino Hotel, the news of the contract agreement was met with thoughts of security, history and longevity for all those involved in a sport that is and has been so loved in the city of Saratoga for more than three quarters of a century. Congratulations and thank you to all those on both sides of the bargaining table who ironed out the seven year contract that was agreed upon last week, a deal that evidences the fact that those negotiations that took place in MLB and NFL circles weren’t the only deals being sought and signed this winter.
Live racing takes place every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon starting at 12:00pm and on Saturday evening beginning at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!