Photos and text by: Cassandra Harris-Lockwood:

Harness racing is as old as America. Scenes and tales from the earliest days of our country depict horses and their drivers racing to the finish line. Still today there is rarely a county fair across this country that does not feature some sort of horse race. The speed and endurance of American Standard bred is world renown and since 1953 Vernon Downs has anchored this piece of Americana in Central New York.

Located in nearby Vernon, trainers and drivers from across the state prefer this location to all others. Only a few short hours away from any of the other tracks, the open green spaces, fresh air and country feel to the Vernon Downs location have a special appeal to those in the horse world.

The development of the nearby gambling leviathan the Turning Stone in 1993, the track has added simulcast harness racing, video gaming, concerts, and entertainment, in addition to building a 173-suite hotel in an attempt to off-set the increased competition of Indian casinos.

It hasn’t worked. And according to the words of Jeff Gural, the current owner of the operation, the facility continues to bleed $150,000 a month.

Gural has appealed to the State Legislature and recently won  tax relief in order to maintain the Downs as the Turning Stone pays no taxes. Previous legislation had fallen short of the mark and there were plans to close down the track, some aspects beginning as soon as September.

What Would be Lost

Most references to the loss of jobs, should the Downs close, have been those associated with the Hotel and Clubhouse itself.

That would be the 300 or so jobs referred to but, this is but a piece of the story. Vernon Downs is an economic engine on the countryside upon which hundreds rely for their income.

George Duscharme is a major player on the Vernon Downs track. With 30 horses under his training and direction, he is among the largest trainers on the back side of the course.

Duscharme is one of many professional horsemen working the track who hails from a long line of horsemen and women. He grew up just three miles from what was the Foxboro Racetrack in Massachusetts, where both of his parents were trainers. Born into a family business, he too started training and eventually made it his career. The Foxboro track is now closed, currently home to the Patriots football team.

This is Duscharme’s sixth season at the Downs and he employs seven people during the eight month season that Vernon Downs is underway. All of his employees at the track either rent apartments or stay in hotels or motels. Some are year round residents.

 There are many locals residents whose lives are tied to the track in some way, either through work on the track or many of the nearby businesses such as the Nothin’ Fancy Café, the Nice n Easy or the local laundromat that specializes in over-sized washers for horse blankets, coolers, sheets and dirty leg wraps.

Then there’s Empire Livestock Marketing, the middle men between the farmers who grow and bail the hay and the horsemen that buy it for their livestock. Empire sells and auctions off between 600 and 800 bales of hay every Monday at 12:30.

George Duscharme, however, comes back every year because really enjoys the area and because the track has everything he needs for his horses.

The Cost of Training a Horse

Consider that Duscharme estimates that his monthly cost for hay, grain and bedding for his 30 head of horses is roughly $8,000. His cost for liniment, leg wraps and other essentials at the on grounds tack shop is at least $1,500 a month.

Paying the blacksmith, or farrier, for shoes, repairs and trimming horses feet, can be anywhere from $4,500 to $5,000 a month. Duscharme says his average payroll is at least $5k a month.

The trainer says, “Veterinarian costs are billed directly to the owners and can be anywhere from $10k to $20k a month, what with shots, vaccines and fluids after races.” And horses get sick or injured once in a while and have to be treated.

There are at least 300 horses on the track today. Use Duscharme’s costs as a multiplier and you begin to see the impact the loss of this institution would bring to bear on the countryside economy.

“People’s livelihoods depend on these animals and this place. They are well taken care of. Vernon Downs means a lot to a lot of people.

”Duscharme went on to say that, “It’s gotten harder to make a living in the horse business.

There’s been a downturn in the past 5 – 10 years. The cycles are down now and a lot people’s incomes depend on this track.”

He says, “It’s very disappointing to hear that the place could be winding down. It will really hurt the area and be a detriment to a lot of businesses if it closes.”

Owner Jeff Gural reportedly had plans to begin the process of shuttering the operation as soon as September.

The Local Tax Base

Dawn Richardson of Richardson Farms in Vernon Center reports that, “If Vernon Downs closes it would devastate the town. They own 300 – 400 acres. The loss of revenues in land and school taxes would have to be picked up by the town and village taxpayers. The big thing is we all gotta pay our taxes. What they pay in taxes helps the whole town.

“The Halbritter Indians now own half of the property in the VVS school district and they don’t pay taxes and we can’t compete. Because of those lost taxes we now have Fire Taxes that have been added. They town has to come up with the money somewhere.

“How’d you like to pay school taxes and fire taxes when you own a couple of hundred acres and you have no kids in school and no buildings, no house, no barn on your property?

Many locals and business owners fear that losing the customers from the race track will cost them in major revenues as well as hay, straw and feed sales.

“Pohl’s did well with the horse market but they closed in April but the horse business has dwindled. We’ve picked up much of their business but it has only increased maybe 5%, says Dawn Richardson”“Worker’s Comp goes up 6% every year. Every year. Unemployment has to be paid.

The Turning Stone doesn’t have to pay it. And if they put that Casino in Downtown Utica they can leave off with the bus to Verona. Those welfare recipients can stay right there and piss their money away,” said Ms. Richardson.

The Other Horse Market

Jack’s Turf Goods triangulates the Nothin’ Fancy Café and Empire Livestock Marketing on Ruth Street in Vernon that leads to the back gate of the track. A quarter of Jack’s Turf Goods business relies upon the track so although they specialize with the hunter/jumper horses how industry, they keep their eye on the harness racing giant next door.

“Five or ten years ago, there were 21,000 new Standard bred foals born every year. Now I think it’s more like 9,100,” said Lynn, a longtime figure at Jack’s.

Another worker added, “They are racing short fields today and the purses are small. They have 6 horse fields and the purses are the same as twenty years ago. Training bills have gone up so even if a horseman wins they don’t make money on the races.”

Some owners have horse farms nearby and truck their horses in daily to train to race all over the northeast where the purses are bigger. There’s Saratoga, Tioga, Buffalo, Batavia, Monticello, Mohawk , Redfield and tracks in New York City and New Jersey that are easy trucks from the center of the state.

“There are trainers whose families have been here for generations. They have made their lives here and are now in their 70’s and 80’s. They are not going to uproot their lives and move to some other location.”

The Next Generation of Horsemen

Bret and Sophie Carhart are the exception. A young couple in their 20’s with a five year old son, they bought the former Peterson’s Harness Shop in 2014 right on the track grounds.

“It was kind of a dying operation. The owners were older so the first couple of years we were bringing back customers and building the business up. That’s why we got the Purina dealership.”

Pohl’s Agway closed earlier this year leaving Vernon without a feed and grain store. It was bought by Goldstar and is now used as a warehouse. The Carharts in turn purchased the Purina dealership which was vital to maintaining the right feed for the racehorses.

“We’re trying to bring a feed store back to Vernon. No one not with the track can get to us in the back side.”

Sophie grew upon the track where her mother and father both trained and raced. She wanted to stay in the horse industry and raise their son in the horse industry as well. Sophie said, “When people here say Vernon, they think Vernon Downs. If Vernon Downs closes, there’ll be nothing left of Vernon.”

Carhart went on to say, “100% of our business is tied to the track. We have about 75 house accounts. That’s customers who pay monthly on their bills. That’s less walk ins. I’d say that a trainer like Duscharme is the exception. Most trainers and owner trainers have 4-6 or 10 horses in their barns. A few have 20.

“We don’t just supply the feed and grain, we also fix the harness and racing bikes, (sulkies) and the jog carts to keep the racers going so we get that business too. But the numbers are way down and the purses are not good. Last year was so uncertain it was all up in the air. Not everybody shipped back for the season.

“Driver’s compete against each other but really look to take care of each other.” A closed community, only registered members of the track can come on to buy from the Carhart’s store. “It’s hard to get people past the security. That’s part of the reason we want to open the store in town.”

What It All Means

George Duscharme emphasized that more casinos and the internet have resulted in numbers not being what they once were 30 and 40 years ago. “The cycles are down and our people’s incomes depend on these 8 months out of the year. Some go and come back. Some stay year round. The farmers grow and bail the hay and we buy the hay. It’s all about this track and this local economy. I hope Gural can hold out.”

The lifetime investments of the many men and women who love horses and the horse industry is incalculable. Consider the Carharts who came back to make a life here in the country.

The income from the hay and straw and corn grown by local farmers and sold at the track make the difference to a tiny profit margin for our local farmers. That hay or straw sale can make or break a season, make or break a family farm.

The closing of Vernon Downs would be the loss of one of the jewels of our region. It’s part of what makes us unique and has stood for decades.

If new businesses can be lured in with PILOTs and tax relief, if the Halbritter Indians can make deals with Albany and the County, to create jobs, our leaders should be able to level the playing field and find the solution for Jeff Gural to keep the track up and running.

Consider the Carharts who came back to make a life here in the country.

The income from the hay and straw and corn grown by local farmers and sold at the track make the difference to a tiny profit margin for our local farmers. That sale can make or break a season, make or break a family farm.

The closing of Vernon Downs would be the loss of one of the jewels of our region. It’s part of what makes us unique and has stood for decades.

If new businesses can be lured in with Pilots and tax relief, if the Halbritter Indians can make deals with Albany and the County, to create jobs, our leaders should be able to level the playing field and find the solution for Jeff Gural to keep the track up and running.

Ann-Mari Daley and her husband Dan winter in Florida and spend their summers in Verona. They have a string of 24 horses and the couple does it all; flat track, polo, trotters and pacers, hunter and jumpers. Ann-Mari says, “This is the best place to train. There’s so much grass and green space to walk the horses, fresh country air, we have all of our dogs and it is so centrally located. We love coming back here.”

Ann-Mari closed by saying. “Hats off to Mr. Gural. He’s done a hell of a job keeping this place open. Anybody else would have walked away.”

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