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If You Can Make It There

NY’s Empire City Casino fought back from the brink

By Dave Little

When I started hanging out at the track in the 1980s, the old-timers would spin yarn after yarn about how one had to get on line to bet the sixth race as soon as the fifth race had ended.


It’s been a long and circuitous road, but the old Yonkers Raceway, now known as Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway, is once again the place to be. It hasn’t been that way in some time—not since the 1950s and 60s. Now, 50 years later, it is once again home to throngs of gamblers jamming into the facility.

Before lotteries, slot machines, table games and sports books, there was horse racing, and for Yonkers—more specifically—harness racing. The sport’s all-time greats, like William Haughton and Stanley Dancer, raced in overnight (you could call them “ordinary”) races as well as major stakes races throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and the crowds at Yonkers were huge because harness racing was the only nighttime action you could get.

When I started hanging out at the track in the 1980s, the old-timers would spin yarn after yarn about how one had to get on line to bet the sixth race as soon as the fifth race had ended.

Buses and subway cars were packed. Parking? Forget about it. If you weren’t there an hour to post time, you’d park a half-mile away in somebody’s driveway if you were lucky. Then came the era of casino gaming, when Atlantic City casinos hit the landscape in the mid-1970s. And everything changed.

Interest in racing started to wane at Yonkers during the 1980s, as people started to travel down the Garden State Parkway to AC for their action. The opening of the Meadowlands Racetrack with its glitzy, new-age facility didn’t help matters any.

But the Rooney family, the same Rooney family that own six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, hung in there. They had acquired Yonkers Raceway in the early 1970s, and always being committed to racing, they hung on to the facility.

Many said it was foolish to hang on to the track, especially as the 1990s wore on and crowds were sparse. Not to mention the purses, which were miniscule. In just 10 years, the weekly featured races went from offering $35,000 purses to just $15,000, a precipitous drop to say the least.

Then came 9/11. After the horrors of the World Trade Center, New York State politicians were concerned that tourism, an obvious cash cow for the Empire State, would take a big hit. So Albany’s lawmakers passed legislation that allowed for alternate gaming at New York’s horse racing facilities.

Yonkers general manager and vice-president Bob Galterio has told me on more than one occasion: “Harness racing is not strong enough to stand on its own anymore. It needs to be offered as one part of the gambling picture at a facility that offers several gaming choices.”

And that is how Yonkers has made it all the way back.


SIDEBAR: Facts and figures for Empire City

  • There are 5,110 slot positions (games). Some of the newest and most exciting themes are offered, including video poker, the Michael Jackson Slots, the Hangover Slots, Sex In the City Slots and the ever-popular Wheel of Fortune, which recently had jackpot winners walk away with $96,000 and $199,000, respectively.
  • In addition to the slots, there are 263 Electronic Table Game positions. These include roulette, baccarat, craps and sic bo. (Unfortunately, blackjack is not permitted in the state of New York.)
  • ECYR is the largest “Racino” from the standpoint of total gaming positions, with 5,373. That is a remarkable number. There are far more total gaming positions at ECYR than at any single casino in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. There are some Native American properties around the country with more gaming positions.



Bigger and Better

Empire City was the biggest facility of its type in the Empire State since it opened. And it’s still getting even bigger and better. Recently, a $50 million, 66,000 square-foot casino expansion opened—which includes a new casino entrance, featuring a high-tech porte-cochère (a carriage porch, or, for practical purposes, a swank covering over the valet parking area) and 300-foot curved glass wall. There is also a new 30,000 square-foot modern gaming floor crowned by a contemporary art piece featuring the NYC skyline crafted of nails that is an expansive 325 feet long and 27 feet high. It is nothing short of spectacular.

Heightened attention and competition are pushing casinos in new directions and innovative design is one means to stand out by creating a better customer experience. We have come a long way from the “slot barns” that used to open up as soon as gaming passed muster in various states.


Get Your Grub On

Even steadfast gamblers needs to refuel. And you can eat quite well at ECYR. The recently-opened Pinch is not your typical diner, but it might remind you of one—Pinch has a different design, to be certain. The nostalgic interior was inspired by 1950s classic vintage diners and the 1955 Bisiluro Damolnar Le Mans race car.

The design at Pinch includes a floating, glass-enclosed keg room suspended over the open kitchen (which offers a wide range of lunch and dinner choices) overlooking the raw bar and pastry counter.  There’s a 15-foot powder coat red tap wall with 100 beer faucets at the main bar and six booths equipped with one-of-a-kind custom designed and fabricated self-pour tableside tap dispensing systems, which allow guests to serve themselves.

The “diner-like” 245-seat, premium casual restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily. Pinch is located on the mezzanine level of the casino, with lunch served daily from noon-4:30 p.m. and dinner served Sunday-Thursday from 6 p.m.-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m.-11 p.m. The bar is open daily from 11:30 a.m.-midnight.

Need a place to watch the big game and grab a burger? Then Dan Rooney’s Pub is for you.

The sports bar and restaurant has 35 televisions, showing sporting events from all over the world. While the Rooney family has owned and operated pubs for generations, Dan Rooney’s has historic roots that run deep. The new sports pub is a replica of the first business owned by Dan Rooney, grandfather of Empire City Casino president and CEO Timothy Rooney, which opened in Pittsburgh in the early 20th century.

Two Michelin star Chef Chris Lee oversees the cuisine, and there are dueling pianos for evening entertainment (Thursday through Saturday from 8 p.m.-12:15 a.m.). Dan Rooney’s has already received culinary acclaim, crushing the competition in the “Battle of the Burgers” at the annual 2012 Greenwich Food & Wine Festival before even opening its doors. The culinary masterpiece is an aged beef burger with brie, tangy onions, watercress, tomato and honey black pepper aioli on a brioche bun.

Along with the acclaimed burger, Dan Rooney’s menu is highlighted by an opened-flamed rotisserie, featuring lemon & herbed chicken, house-cured corned beef, traditional pub entrees such as Sheppard’s pie, country lamb stew, bangers & mash and fish & chips.

Dan Rooney’s is open every day from 11 a.m.-4 a.m. Full menu is available from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. and there is free valet parking with a minimum purchase of $50.00.

Dave Little has been the racing editor for the New York Daily News since September 1991, serving also as a columnist and racing handicapper. He is a frequent visitor to Atlantic City's casinos, where he can be seen in the race book, in front of a video poker machine, on the slots floor and at the craps tables. His yearly visits to Las Vegas find him in sports books, feverishly handicapping and wagering on Major League Baseball.


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