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Saratoga without horse racing? It's possible

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — If it's time for the Kentucky Derby, it's the beginning of the countdown to the start of racing season at Saratoga.

Saratoga Race Course is scheduled to open July 23, the 142nd summer the quaint resort town will host the finest Thoroughbreds in the world.

But in the past few months, rumors and whispers have whipped up and down Broadway here that the 40-day race meet (up from 36 days last year) could be in trouble.

The New York Racing Association is financially strapped, and many say the only salvation for the struggling organization is video lottery terminals at Aqueduct racetrack in New York City.

Nine years after the initial proposal, state government leaders have not resolved the issue of who would operate the VLT project. So the project, which NYRA says would bring in $300 million, sits.

The push for VLTs is similar to that being made in Kentucky.

If the VLTs were in place, they would generate $1 million a day for New York, according to projections. Some money would go to increase purses for NYRA races, which would increase field sizes and attract more horses and horsemen to NYRA tracks at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga.

Socialite Marylou Whitney, who spends the summer at her estate here after living part of the spring in Lexington, laments that friends from Kentucky might be going elsewhere for the summer racing season.

"Our government is slowly killing racing in New York," she said. "Saratoga is the most popular race meet in the world. That did not happen by accident."

Without VLTs, NYRA officials say, the company will run out of money. If that happens, it could be a dark day — literally — in Saratoga.

The possibility of not having a meet confuses some and frustrates others. And it infuriates Hall of Fame horse trainer Nick Zito, perhaps the best ambassador Saratoga has.

"If any of those so-called gentlemen in Albany want to get re-elected, try closing that place," Zito said. "Just try it. See how fast you get re-elected. Saratoga is the only remaining truth we have left. If those politicians want to mess with Saratoga, God will come at them with a wrath they have never seen. You think Sodom and Gomorrah was bad? Those Albany steps would come down like you've never seen."

If the meet were to be canceled, how might that affect Saratoga Springs, whose prosperity is so closely tied to the races?

Joe Dalton, who has been with the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce for 40 years, said the race season brings in $213 million a year to the region.

Within five blocks of city hall, there are 70 restaurants and bars. There are 1,700 hotel rooms for track guests.

Dalton also said there are 2,500 full-time jobs directly related to the racetrack.

"Without the track, we would feel it," said Jamie Beale, owner of Grey Gelding restaurant. "I don't know if I would panic, but I would be quite discouraged. Winters can be pretty harsh on us."

A summer without Saratoga? People talk about it but can't believe it.

"I could not even think about that," NYRA president and CEO Charles Hayward said. "We are going to do everything we can do to make sure Saratoga stays in place."