All it took was 5,500 slot machines to boost those Yonkers purses

Jun 5, 2007 2:55 AM

The best kept secret in American sports these days is the money that is being made by owners, trainers and drivers in harness racing.

The thoroughbred crowd, full of pride and at times a bit haughty, have not caught on to what’s happening yet, and vanity is keeping them from buying into a good thing.

Last Saturday night, at Yonkers Raceway in New York, a 3-year-old pacing colt named Southwind Lynx won the eighth race on a 10-race card.

Nothing exceptional about that.

Except that the race was worth $1 million, and the next race, won by a 3-year-old pacing filly named Southwind Tempo, was worth $242,620.

The two winners carried similar names because they both were bred by Southwind Farm in New Jersey, one of the most beautiful horse farms in America, harness or thoroughbred.

More important, both winners were driven by a 25-year-old farm kid from Illinois named Tim Tetrick, who is burning up American harness racing this year. He is leading the country in winning drives with 496, and horses he has driven this year have won $5,746,761, with the rich second half of the season just starting. He is on course to break the all-time single-season record for winning drives, currently the 1,076 won by Walter Case Jr. in 1998.

While all of this was going on at Yonkers, 17 miles away, across the Hudson River at the Meadowlands, another 3-year-old pacing colt named Fresh Deck won the $500,000 New Jersey Classic, and on that racing program there also was a race for pacing mares for $225,000.

In the case of the Meadowlands, which has been the nation’s premier harness track since it was built in 1976, the purses were not surprising.

In the case of Yonkers, while remarkable, they also should not have been too surprising, because they were fueled by more than 5,500 shot machines tinkling and clinking while the pacers and trotters made their rounds for the $1.4 million in purses they raced for Saturday night.

The reason that is not surprising is that Tim Rooney, son of the legendary Art Rooney of Pittsburgh Steelers fame, promised just these rewards long before he got slot machines last year.

He knew he had the best casino location in America other than the Vegas strip. Better even than Atlantic City, because you have to drive or take a bus or fly a private plane to get to Atlantic City.

Yonkers, for those who are not familiar with New York State’s second largest city, sits on the Deegan Expressway, which runs north and south into and out of New York City and passes the George Washington Bridge, 5 miles or less south, which leads to the millions who work in New York but live in New Jersey.

I’m not sure how many cars pass Yonkers Raceway every working day. Perhaps 50,000. Maybe more, but not less. Having a casino sitting directly on one of America’s busiest highways, adjacent to what is almost certainly America’s richest city, is what the realtors love to call "location, location, location."

Those realtors tried hard, for the last five years, to buy Yonkers and its 89 acres from the Rooney family. They tried in vain. Tim Rooney knew slots were coming, and he knew that when they did he had The Spot. He came close to selling several times, but decided each time to hang in there. He closed down the racetrack for more than half a year to rebuild, to the fury of his horsemen, who now are reaping the rich rewards he told them they would get.

Tim Rooney’s son, a lawyer, is the track’s counsel, and his son-in-law, Bob Galterio, is the track’s general manager. Galterio says the million dollar purse Saturday night was only the beginning, and Yonkers would offer at least two more, probably for the Yonkers Trot and Messenger Pace, this summer.

Saturday’s million dollar pace was the Arthur J. Rooney Memorial, named for Tim’s father, the patriarch of the family who gave his two oldest sons, Art Jr. and Dan, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Tim’s younger brothers John and Pat the Miami Beach Kennel Club.

Art was one of the greatest men in American sports, beloved by all who knew him, a man with countless friends and no enemies. He was a gambler all his life, and somewhere above he has to be smiling at the jackpot his son Tim won, for the family and for harness racing, in keeping Yonkers.