Gamblers Flock To Reopening At Yonkers Raceway

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A pair of standardbred racehorses got in some light exercise on Monday morning at Yonkers Raceway, oblivious to the line of hundreds of gamblers who waited patiently for the grand reopening of the adjoining Empire City racino and its 5,000-plus slot machines and other options.

Patrons who arrived 30 minutes ahead of the 10 a.m. reopening had to wait a full hour before passing a temperature check and entering the mammoth site.

The line (see photo above) only grew later in the morning, with eager players practicing social distancing in a line that snaked around the fabled half-mile harness racetrack oval.

The reopening — after closure since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic — followed 12 days after both Resorts World at Aqueduct in Queens and Jake’s 58 Hotel & Casino on Long Island reopened their doors to provide that section of New York City and its eastern suburbs with a resumption of legal gambling options.

But the Yonkers site — less than a mile from NYC’s northern border — is more convenient for Bronx residents, those in northern Manhattan and Westchester and Rockland counties, and northern New Jersey.

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The latter is important because that is an opportunity for New York State to resume siphoning discretionary spending dollars from out-of-state customers.

Border wars for gambling dollars

New Jersey has been eating New York’s lunch on that front since mid-2018, when mobile sports betting launched in the Garden State.

The closest legal sports betting option in New York State for millions of residents is Resorts World Casino in the Catskills — almost 100 miles north of midtown Manhattan.

So instead, every day some Manhattan residents in particular take mass transit to land just over the New Jersey border, with geolocation recognizing their visit and allowing for legal wagering.

One report estimated that New Yorkers wagered $837 million in New Jersey last year, almost 20% of the Garden State’s total of $4.6 billion.

Empire City, meanwhile, has offered bus service from two dozen locations in Bergen and Passaic County, for example, almost since it opened more than a dozen years ago. The same is true for Union, Hudson, and Essex counties.

The Yonkers location, only about 20 miles from central Bergen County, is a much more convenient gambling stop for those who prefer slot machines to the horse racing and brick-and-mortar sports betting offered at Meadowlands Racetrack.

Limitations at Yonkers

Still, Empire City at Yonkers Raceway is limited by more than just a 25% occupancy rate upon reopening, with a similar amount of its nearly 5,000 slot machines in play.

There are no live-dealer table games such as craps, blackjack, baccarat, or roulette. Instead, patrons can play with “virtual dealers” who appear on video screens.

Those were back in action on Monday, with all of the “dealers” appearing to be female — and many of them showing lots of cleavage. (One would think that a muscular young man would attract other clientele as well.)

The nearest full-scale casinos in the tri-state region are located in the Catskills, Atlantic City, northern Connecticut, and eastern Pennsylvania, depending on a gambler’s exact location.

But some lawmakers have been pushing to add live-dealer games at both Yonkers and Aqueduct’s racinos as soon as 2023, when a moratorium on such sites in the New York City region expires — or possibly even sooner.

A one-time fee of $500 million for each site has been suggested, although one expert says that’s only half of the true value of such licenses.

On the scene at the racino

But for now, the thousands who visited on Reopening Day seemed content to resume their relationships with their favorite “one-armed bandits.”

The most typical arrangement was of rows of five slot machines, with only the far left and far right machines in operation — and in many cases with the three middle seats removed.

Numerous supplies of pre-moistened wipes, which came with a recommendation to be used before customers begin playing the slots, were as welcome a sight as cleaning crews throughout the facility.

The Big Kitchen at Empire Plaza food court opened at 11 a.m., with the provision that food and beverages could not be taken onto the casino floor.

Some of the tables offer a view of the century-old racetrack, where racing resumed in June without spectators. Yonkers features racing five nights a week for the rest of the calendar year.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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