SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Well before dice start tumbling at new upstate casinos, gambling operations in New York are evolving to stay competitive.
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New York horse tracks are loaded with more slot-like video lottery machines than several years ago — and some new games will electronically mirror casino favorites like blackjack. New amenities like trackside hotels are in the works. And in central New York, the tribe that operates Turning Stone Resort Casino opened a second, smaller casino and added slot machines to its convenience stores.
Some moves are being made with an eye on new casinos, though others would have happened anyway in such a competitive market. But all the changes could put existing casinos in a stronger position when new players enter the field.
"If they can offer close to what the consumer can get at one of the new casinos, they can hold on to customers," Peter Trombetta, an analyst at Moody's, said of New York's horse tracks.
Trombetta said the new upstate casinos will add supply to a market already under pressure, so existing operations have good reason to evolve.
Licenses are pending for three new gambling resorts in New York: Montreign Resort Casino in the Catskills, Lago Resort & Casino in the Finger Lakes and Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady. If licenses are granted this year, developers would have to open their casinos by 2017. Bids are due Monday for a possible forth casino in the Southern Tier.
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The Oneida Indians have been especially busy with Lago casino looming about 65 miles to the west of Turning Stone.
The tribe in June opened a "Wizard of Oz"-themed casino in a strip mall just east of Syracuse. While the Yellow Brick Road Casino is small, it is on a line between Turning Stone and the Lago site. The tribe has also added 65 slot machines at three convenience stores on its land, and the Turning Stone complex will include a luxury outlet center by the end of 2016.
Horse track casinos — known as racinos — have more limited options since they can't legally offer card and table games like full casinos. But some are exploiting one clear advantage they do have: their head start. For instance, Batavia Downs Gaming sold land for an 84-room hotel overlooking its track knowing that Lago is scheduled to open some 75 miles east, said marketing director Ryan Hasenauer.
"How do you compete with somebody who has things you definitely can't have?" Hasenauer asked. "Well, there's other things you can do."
The number of video slots at racinos statewide has grown in recent years. Maybe more significantly, New York legislators this year clarified state law to clear the way for electronic table games like blackjack and three-card poker at some racinos. Saratoga Casino and Raceway and Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway both hope to add the new games in the coming months.
The main floor of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, which will be about 30 miles from the Rivers casino in Schenectady, already features electronic versions of roulette and craps. At roulette stations, players bet on individual screens arrayed in a circle around a real wheel they can watch on monitors.
"It's the exact same product you will see in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. It's just for New York," said Saratoga spokeswoman Rita Cox.
Work also has begun on a $34 million hotel at the Saratoga site planned well before the Schenectady casino was chosen. Though the new casino is expected to take a quarter or more of Saratoga's business, Cox said features like electronic black jack, the hotel and their location in a tourist town will help it compete.
It's not just the New York market that is tightening. Audrey Oswell, chief operating officer of Seneca Gaming Corporation, which runs three tribal casinos in western New York, said they can see competing properties in Canada across from their Niagara Falls casino.
But the new entrants believe there's still room for their casinos to thrive. In Schenectady, the $330 million Rivers casino will have its own amenities beyond slots and table games, including a high-end steakhouse, a spa and riverfront trails.
"The way we think about the market is it's basically, generally within an hour or so drive of Schenectady, and that's roughly 900,000 people or so," said Rush Street Gaming CEO Greg Carlin. "We think that market is deep enough for us and certainly Saratoga to both be successful."