Off to the Races

When Jonney Birosh visited the new Tioga Downs racetrack on opening day last June, she used her own “system” to choose the horses she bet on. “If the name sounds kooky enough, it’ll win,” Birosh told her friends. To their – and her – surprise, she was right: betting on horses with names like “Pizza To Go” and “Speedy Gus,” Birosh came up a winner on “eight or nine” of the 11 races that day.

Birosh, a utility company meter reader who lives just two miles from the new $40 million harness track and casino located in the village of Nichols, said the gaming and entertainment facility has given a real boost to that rural area of the Southern Tier. “I know a lot of people have gotten jobs,” she said, “and it’s given us options. There was nothing around here.”

The Nichols resident and more than 6,000 other visitors jammed Tioga Downs on that first day of harness racing. Lines of bettors overwhelmed the pari-mutuel windows, and a long line formed at the entrance to the clubhouse’s popular “County Fair Buffet.” A month later, at the official opening of the facility’s 750-machine casino, track and state gaming officials welcomed another enthusiastic crowd.

Tioga Downs occupies the site, along Route 17, of the old Tioga Park, a quarter-horse racetrack that opened in 1976 and closed a year later. Used for a time as a flea market, the defunct facility gradually deteriorated over the years.

A year ago, Jeffrey Gural, a Manhattan real estate executive with a
love of horses and harness racing (he owns a farm in Dutchess County with about 60 standardbred horses) bought the old Tioga Park with several partners and began the effort to turn it into what he calls “the best racetrack in the state.”

Realizing that “the racing on its own can’t pay for itself,” Gural lobbied successfully in Albany for a law allowing casinos with video lottery terminals at racetracks. “There are a lot of factors, but racing on its own cannot be self-sustaining,” the track owner said. With casino revenue outstripping racing returns 10-1, “casino profits support the racing industry,” according to Gural.

“Things are going pretty well,” the developer noted a month after Tioga Downs’ opening. “The reception that we’ve gotten, especially to the racing, has been somewhat surprising. I’m very pleased with the support that we’ve received from the community.”

The $40 million makeover at the Nichols track has included the construction of an impressive new clubhouse decorated with 11 large murals depicting racing and “county fair” themes. A simulcast lounge with a bar provides video screenings of harness racing at other tracks. Options for eating include the “County Fair Buffet” and the “Finish Line” deli counter.

The track itself was upgraded at a cost of $750,000, with new lighting and a state-of-the-art, banked stonedust surface that provides safer running for the horses.

Not surprisingly, the harness racing community in New York is glowing over the opening of the new facility.

“I love the track. I think it’s an amazing thing Mr. Gural has done,” noted Kimberly Burris, a standardbred breeder and trainer with a 125-acre farm in Spencer. Burris is a board member of the Southern Tier Harness Horsemen’s Association, and moved to New York from Massachusetts “to participate in the breeding and racing program here … Now I have the luxury of having a racetrack 20 miles away.”

I recently talked to Sarah Osmeloski, secretary of the horesmen’s group and a trainer with a farm in Freeville, as she watered a horse, Apache Uprising, after a winning run. Osmeloski is in partnership with her mother, Sally Norcross, of the town of Dryden, who owns Apache Rising.

“The track is wonderful,” Osmeloski said. “For me, it’s a dream come true because the track is close to my home, and I think it’s going to be an attraction for people in the area.” She said the track’s opening has led her to expand her stable of pacers. “I’m excited about it because I can upgrade my stock, and I’ll have a place to train, race and compete.”

Guy Howard, of Chenango Bridge, a former Southern Tier homebuilder who now breeds and trains standardbreds, agreed with Osmeloski about the track’s attraction. “The facility is really super,” Howard commented in a track barn recently as he did chores around the stalls where he keeps the horses he plans to race during the week. “The horsemen in the paddock have been amazed and ecstatic about the fact that upwards of 5,000 people have been in the grandstand watching the races, hollering, screaming and cheering for the horses. It’s something the horsemen haven’t seen in years.”

With 17 of his own horses and five “boarders,” Howard noted, “the horses are more work than building houses, but I enjoy it.” He directed a visitor to a stall where a horse, “Howard’s Expresso,” was sprawled flat out on the straw-covered floor, sound asleep. The owner laughed as he explained that the horse had been “home for a few days” at the farm and had come back “all tired out. It’s good for them to get to go home, go out and eat grass.”

For Nina Simmonds, another Binghamton-area breeder, Tioga Downs “is a dream come true. I’ve been doing this for years and have had to travel anywhere from 100 to 200 miles to race a couple times a week in places that are really old and in really bad shape. This is like Disneyworld only right next door. It’s 30 miles away, and everybody loves it.” Simmonds noted that the purses in the races are good. “The horsemen are getting a fair shake,” she said, and owners, trainers and drivers are coming from all over.

Enthusiasm among Tioga Downs’ visitors was apparent right from the track’s opening. Track operators stressed the “family” factor in their marketing, and the Kenderes family from Endicott, Michael and Trish and their teenage children Michael, Kevin and Caitlin, showed that approach was paying off as they stood behind the track rail on Father’s Day, cheering as horses raced by.

Trish Kenderes, a software engineer at IBM, suggested they make a “trifecta” bet on three horses using the numbers from Caitlin’s birthday: 6, 1 and 3. The horses came in and paid $276. Eighteen-year-old Michael noted that another horse had done well at the track and he made a bet, although the horse’s initial odds were 99-1. The horse won, and Michael received $56. “It was luck,” the youth said with a smile.

The senior Michael, a software engineer at Lockheed Martin, noted: “It was an enjoyable day. The one thing I hear about this area is that there aren’t a lot of things to do. Companies like Lockheed Martin have a hard time attracting people. I think the track and casino will really help attract young professionals.”

On the day of the official opening of the track’s casino, two young people from nearby Waverly, Sarah Morrell, 22, a recent business management graduate of Elmira College, and Alfred Trout, 24, then “between jobs,” sat trying their luck on 25-cent video gambling machines. Trout won $209 and went home $160 ahead; Morrell lost $12. “My limit,” she said with a laugh.

Both Morrell and Trout spoke enthusiastically about the new facility. “It gives us more to do in the area. For young people, you’ve got a bowling alley and the mall in Elmira, and that’s about it,” Trout said. “And there’s the added revenue and the jobs.”

Added Morrell: “It’s a fun place for young people. It’s something different.”

Asked if they planned to bet on the horses, Morrell noted: “I was talking to one of my friends about it, and we thought it would be kind of interesting, but we have no idea what to do, so we just stay away from it. We feel intimidated.”

That’s an attitude that troubles track owner Jeffrey Gural. “The one problem we have, to be honest, is it seems a lot of people really don’t know how to bet, and we have to try to educate them so that they can have more fun instead of just watching the races. We’ve got to have handicapping seminars and things like that in order to get them to understand the intricacies of the sport.”

Gural said he can see that betting lessons are needed by “just looking at the ‘handle’ (the amount of money bet) and dividing by the number of people that are there. It seems that on average people are betting $20 a day, and at most racetracks a person bets $60 or $70 a day. It’s not surprising, but it is what it is.”

Tioga Downs is run by Nevada Gold & Casinos Inc., a Houston-based gaming company that owns 40 percent of the Nichols track. Jonathan A. Arnesen, the company’s president, said the new track “is meeting our expectations and our plan thus far. The momentum’s there; we’re feeling good about the property.”

Along with Tioga Downs, Gural and his partners have taken control of the bankrupt Vernon Downs and, at a cost of $60 million, expect to turn that aging track into another harness-racing showcase by the end of the summer. Arnesen said that within a year, the two tracks are expected to return a combined annual revenue of about $15 million.

by Bill Wingell
Bill Wingell is a freelance feature writer and photographer who contributes frequently to several newspapers and magazines in New York. He teaches short courses on street and family photography in Broome Community College’s community education department.

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