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Yonkers casino off to modest start

By MICHAEL GANNON
THE JOURNAL NEWS

Stephen Schmitt/The Journal News
Romeo Cartolano of Yonkers tries his luck on the new video gaming machines at Yonkers Raceway.

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(Original publication: October 12, 2006)

YONKERS

Joe Erato smiled broadly as he held his cell phone up to the video slot machine, allowing his wife to hear the melodic jingling on the other end of the line.

The 56-year-old retired blacktop and asphalt worker from Yonkers was among the first people through the doors of Empire City Gaming at Yonkers Raceway, the $240 million video lottery casino that opened yesterday and is expected to reap millions in new revenue for the state. His wife had to work, but Erato couldn't wait to share the experience with her.

"We need a place like this, instead of going to Connecticut or Atlantic City," he said, as other gamblers flowed in behind him, oohing and aahing at the stately dark, wood-paneled columns and flashing lights of the more than 1,870 machines.

Erato's words, like the cheery hum of the machines, are music to the ears of state, city and raceway officials.

The 107-year-old track has been closed for more than 15 months as renovations proceeded, and there have been several legal battles with gambling opponents and horse owners, trainers and drivers over the five years since the state Legislature authorized eight horse tracks to open video lottery casinos.

More recently, the track has inched back the opening incrementally as it rushed to secure needed permits and other sign-offs.

"If I started to thank everyone here that helped us, we wouldn't open until tomorrow night," track owner Timothy Rooney Sr. said in a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by politicians and state officials before the casino's doors opened at 10 a.m.

Empire City immediately becomes the largest of the seven video lottery casinos to open in New York state and the closest to New York City. The state Legislature approved the facilities five years ago to revive the state's flagging economy in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and help the long-struggling harness racing industry, depleted of fans and wagering since the rise of off-track betting 30 years ago.

The crowd waiting for the doors to open, however, was smaller than at other racetracks' casino openings, with less than 100 people initially passing through the door. Steady streams of people poured in, however, embarking from shuttle buses that brought them from a parking lot on the other side of the track.

The modest debut was by design. Track officials said they intentionally did not market or provide much advance notice to media before yesterday's partial opening, with only the casino's first floor, featuring some 1,870 video lottery machines, and a second-floor restaurant open to the public.

The rest of the 5,500 machines that will be part of the facility's first phase will be spread out in an area on the second floor and an adjacent extension building, both still under construction. A more formal grand opening is expected by the end of the year, when the work is finished, said Timothy Rooney Jr., the track's general counsel and son of Timothy Rooney.

Live harness racing also is not coming back just yet - the younger Rooney said the track hopes to start racing again in a week to 10 days.

That didn't sit well with horse owners, trainers and drivers, a small group of whom protested at a casino entrance on Central Park Avenue.

The Standardbred Owners Association of New York, the horsemen's group, sued Yonkers Raceway earlier this year for violating a 2004 agreement that only anticipated shutting down racing for four months. The track settled the lawsuit with a promise to make up lost racing dates, but horsemen are leery of more extended delays and were going to court again yesterday.

The elder Rooney, however, said horsemen would benefit greatly from the casino. A portion of the proceeds are used to enhance racing purses, expected to increase some $60 million over the next year, he said.

While the track also gets a cut, the bulk of the revenue goes to education. Empire City is expected to generate $420,000 a day for education and more than $400 million a year, said Nancy Palumbo, director of the State Division of the Lottery.

Players, of course, hope they can make a buck or two.

Hugo Sanon, a 44-year-old nurse from Haverstraw, took the day off from work to attend Empire City's debut. He said the first day a casino is open is always good luck, so he didn't want to pass up the opportunity.

Before noon, he had already won $112 on a slots game. Sanon said he goes to Atlantic City nearly every weekend, but could see himself cutting back.

"If this is friendly, I'll come here," he said.

Romeo Cartolano, a 75-year-old retired electrical technician, walked to the raceway from his Seminary Avenue home when he read about the opening in yesterday's newspaper. He said he did not have an addictive personality that might make it difficult for some to have a casino so close to home.

Then again, temptations exist everywhere.

"People are addicted to those scratch-offs," he said. "It's just as bad."

Reach Michael Gannon at mgannon@lohud.com at 914-694-5080.

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