But even as headlines continue to be made about where three New York City-area casinos might be located, Gural told an audience at the Racing and Gaming Conference in Saratoga Springs, New York, on Tuesday that these days, “Our strategy is just to wait.”
There are a number of reasons why Gural literally can afford to do so.
First, Gural said that “the Supreme Court saved us” in 2018, when the nation’s highest court sided with New Jersey in striking down a 26-year-old federal law restricting Las Vegas-style sports betting to Nevada.
“Otherwise we’d be out of business, and now we’re profitable,” said Gural, who has a lucrative partnership with daily fantasy sports giant FanDuel to provide sports betting both at the East Rutherford track and online. “I’m not under any pressure anymore.”
Perhaps more importantly, Gural believes a casino being located in Manhattan — perhaps not even 10 miles from the racetrack — as one of three winning bids for licenses is a pipe dream.
Three licenses available? Not really, Gural says
There is “no way in the world,” Gural asserted, that New York gaming regulators will decline to approve licenses to upgrade Aqueduct Racetrack and Yonkers Raceway from their current slot machine-centric racinos to full-fledged casinos with live-dealer table games and sports betting.
“So it’s really a question of one license,” Gural said. “And there won’t be any casino in Manhattan — anyone trying for that is just wasting their time, in my opinion.”
Widespread opposition from residents and a multitude of elected officials in that borough would be joined by negative reactions from the entertainment and hotel industries, said Gural, a real estate mogul with decades of practical political experience in the city’s most prominent borough.
“It’s almost impossible to find a location where people want a casino, other than [at Aqueduct and Yonkers, where gambling has been offered for generations],” Gural added.
Gural also noted that the four upstate commercial casinos that opened in 2018 were in economically depressed areas or, in the case of Del Lago casino, “in the middle of nowhere.” Gural’s Tioga Downs racetrack got upgraded from a racino to a casino as part of that process.
So who will get the coveted third license?
“I make Citi Field the favorite, unless they screw it up totally,” Gural said of a reported bid by New York Mets owner Steve Cohen to seek a casino license next to his ballpark.
Lessons learned from the first time around
Gural was far more eager to see a Meadowlands casino get approved back in 2016, when he bankrolled a campaign for passage of a statewide referendum to allow for two new casino licenses in North Jersey. That bid to end Atlantic City’s monopoly lost by nearly a 4-to-1 margin.
“I learned a lot from the failure of that referendum,” said Gural, adding that in retrospect, he believes some elected officials “were just doing me a favor to shut me up, basically” by getting the concept on the ballot.
If Yonkers and Aqueduct become full-fledged casinos, Gural expects some North Jersey residents will visit them — and then, given the inconvenience, begin to put political pressure on local lawmakers to give Garden State residents their own casino in the region.
“You have to limit where you could put a casino — it has to be specifically for the Meadowlands [Sports Complex],” Gural said of a future ballot question. “Then you won’t get opposition from people who live in Teaneck or anyplace else” who want to be sure the casino is not coming to their backyard.
There will be no casino referendum this fall, and Gural said that these days, he seems to be the only advocate for it — at the moment, at least.
Asked by NJ Online Gambling after the panel discussion whether the Meadowlands Racetrack’s future was ever in severe peril, he said it did not quite get to that point. While the track began to become less and less profitable in 2014-16, the Supreme Court’s announcement in June 2017 that it would take up the sports betting case — in spite of a contrary recommendation from the office of the U.S. Solicitor General — left Gural convinced it was just a matter of time before sports betting would arrive at his track.
And none too soon, Gural added, given the COVID-19 pandemic that caused such an upheaval starting in March 2020.
“The pandemic really hurt [business], because it forced people to stay home and bet on their phone,” Gural said. “And they said, ‘Wow, this is a lot easier than coming to the racetrack.’”