A racing resurgence at Tioga Downs

The slots parlor was thriving at Tioga Downs Sunday, with the money making its inexorable flow from the gamblers' pockets into the track's bank account, but Tioga Vice President Jason Settlemoir never seemed to notice. Instead, he was busy scurrying around the racetrack, talking to fans and horsemen, checking in at a table where a drawing was being held, giving away trophies after the feature races, calling in to the mutuel department to see how much had been wagered so far on the card. You might not find another racetrack executive like him, at least not at a place that has slot machines. Not one who still believes in horse racing.

Tioga Downs isn't exactly Saratoga. It's a small, remote harness track near Binghamton, New York. The quality of racing and the purses aren't bad, but neither is on the scale of the sport's top-tier tracks like the Meadowlands. But what sets Tioga apart and makes it exceptional is track management's commitment to the sport. In an era where virtually every other American track that has slot machines has de-emphasized racing and seems to barely tolerate it, Tioga management is committed to doing everything it can to see to it that racing thrives.

Tioga actually opened in 1976 as a Quarter Horse track. It lasted just three seasons and sat empty for the next 30 years. But when slot machines were approved at the New York racetracks, New York real estate developer Jeff Gural saw an opportunity to revive Tioga and bring harness racing to the area. Gural wasn't just a businessman. He was someone with a deep affinity for harness racing, which is why he wanted to do more than sit back and reap profits from the slot machines.

Gural, who also bought Vernon Downs, which is near Syracuse, realized the real money would be made with the slots, but he wasn't ready to give up on harness racing as a viable entity. So Gural brought in a young, motivated team to help him run Tioga and Vernon and told them to go out and prove to the rest of the racing world that the game wasn't dead yet.

"It's nice to work for a guy like Jeff who still wants to promote harness racing," said Settlemoir. "It's nice because in most of these places they have just given up and won't promote it any more. You see 100 to 200 people in the stands at a lot of these tracks and for someone like me, who is only 33 and wants to spend the rest of life in a business he loves, that's scary."

A particular horse racing executive said that racing is in a death spiral and that the only people who come to the racetrack anymore are old people and their parents.

-- Tioga Vice President Jason Settlemoir

Settlemoir spoke from a seat on the bottom row of the small grandstand. Above him was a scene that is hard to find these days: At least half the seats were filled by people who were there solely to watch and wager on live racing. There were probably no more than 2,000 people who were there for the races, but at a small track in this era, that was a remarkable number.

It hasn't been easy. When Tioga reopened in 2006, Settlemoir had to create interest in the sport in an area that had never had harness racing and in a climate where he knew the majority of his potential customers would prefer the mind-numbing exercise of wasting their time and money sitting in front of a slot machine. He also knew that just about no one gave him and Gural a chance.

"A particular horse racing executive said that racing is in a death spiral and that the only people who come to the racetrack anymore are old people and their parents," Settlemoir said. "I hear that, and to be honest with you, it only energizes me more. We have been able to show people that we can still get people to come to the racetrack."

The only secret to Settlemoir's success is this: he tries. While his colleagues at other slots tracks won't spend a penny to promote racing or do anything to interest customers in gambling on horses, he works feverishly to draw attention to Tioga's races. A day at Tioga is pitched as a fan-friendly, fun activity, much like a minor league baseball game. They have several fireworks nights and giveaways. On Sundays, clowns entertain the kids and there are inflatable rides for them to frolic in. One of Tioga's signature events is its drivers' championship, in which the sport's elite drivers are brought in to compete against one another for a top prize of $30,000.

Those were the sorts of things that helped Tioga get established and create an interest for harness racing in the area. But Settlemoir and Gural wanted to do more, so they set out to make the Tioga product more attractive to bettors.

At the start of this year's meet, Tioga lowered its takeout to the minimums allowed under New York racing regulations. The experiment is working. Settlemoir said that he expects Tioga will show a handle increase this year in live and simulcast betting, something few other tracks will be able to boast in this economy.

A total of 15 percent is taken out of the pools at Tioga on win, place and show bets and 17 percent on exactas, but even that is so high that very few horseplayers can expect to make money betting. Settlemoir understands that and knows excessive takeouts are among the many reasons racing is struggling. If he and Gural get their way, the takeout on Tioga races will go even lower.

"Jeff and I would like to see the takeout lowered to 9 or 10 percent," he said. "That way it would be equal to what the take is on the slots. We want to put the horseplayer on an equal level with the people who play the slots."

Settlemoir is proud of what he, Gural and their team have accomplished, and he should be. He is intent on proving that his sport still has a pulse and he is succeeding. The bigger problem may be in getting others to believe. He'll fight that battle, too.

"It would be so much easier to just give up here, give up on harness racing," he said. "That's what everyone else has done. Well, I can promise you there's no give-up here, not with this team."

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.