When he announced the state’s appointees to the new NYRA Board this past Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “we have an enormously accomplished group to assist us in making New York thoroughbred racing the best in the country.” Back in July, however, a “source with direct knowledge” of the Governor’s plans outlined a dramatically different look for the new Board than the one announced. “The hope is to bring entirely new blood onto the board, people who perhaps know more about horse racing outside New York rather than the current group that’s been very insular,” said the source according to Fredric U. Dicker writing in the New York Post on July 16. Dicker is Cuomo’s authorized biographer and a frequent user of unnamed administration sources. If I were a betting man, I would bet that Dicker’s source is Howard Glaser, Cuomo’s Director of State Operations, and the person identified by Dicker last week as the Governor’s point person on racing.
The source said that Glaser’s office had been “flooded with experienced racing hands interested in being appointed to the board.” Dicker quoted the source as saying:
We’re getting interest from people around the country, and the selection won’t be limited to New Yorkers. These are people interested in becoming part of the New York family, and it may make sense for us to have expertise from people from other states.
So using these metrics put forth by the Cuomo source in July, how do the appointments stack up?
The Governor named the President of Cornell University, David Skorton, to chair the Board subject to the approval of the remaining members. Skorton has no experience with racing, although the Governor’s announcement pointed out the there is an equine hospital associated with Cornell. In what appears to be an effort to make some marquee selections, the Governor also picked Bobby Flay and Jane Rosenthal. In case you are wondering, Rosenthal is, according to the announcement, an “acclaimed producer and co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival.” Unlike Flay, who has been actively involved in racing, Rosenthal has no experience with racing. Cuomo rounded out his picks with his Budget Director, two with government service during the administration of Mario Cuomo, and two members of the current Board. If you’re counting, not a single appointee is from outside New York, and two of the three with experience in horse racing are already on the “insular” Board.
Senate President Dean Skelos used his choices to select a current member of the Board and Earle Mack, who served on the Board from 1990 to 2004. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver added a current Vice-Chair of the Board and Rick Cotton, who has no apparent connection to racing. Not surprisingly - although perhaps it should be - the “old” NYRA named five of its current members to the new Board.
So, the final tally shows that the 17-member “new” Board consists of nine current members and one long-time prior Board member. Of the seven new selections, four have no apparent experience with horse racing. It does not appear that a single appointee is from outside New York. Applying the standards articulated by Dicker’s source from the Cuomo Administration, it is hard to view these Board appointments as being anything other than a failure.
I do not know any of the Board members personally, or much about them in any capacity, and have no basis to question the capability of any of the choices. They may very well be outstanding selections who will lead New York to a new day in racing with vastly improved interest and attendance at New York’s tracks. I also have no idea as to the role any of the holdover Board members played on the Board in recent years - they may well have been voices against the direction of NYRA the Governor seems so intent on changing, although he has yet to articulate his vision for the future of racing in New York. I do not recall any of the 10 expressing such concerns publicly, however, following Cuomo’s stated intention to take over the Board.
And there are serious questions about the overall composition of this Board. We are, after all, talking about a Board, most of who are appointed by public officials, consisting of 16 white men and one woman. When I wrote a post on Friday entitled Cuomo finds woman to appoint to NYRA Board, I felt like I was writing a headline for The Onion. One of NYRA’s purported shortcomings is the “need for major strategic changes designed to reach new generations of racing fans [as] critical for the future survival of the sport.” That’s according to Robert Megna, Cuomo’s Budget Director, writing in his capacity as Chair of the Franchise Oversight Board in July. The necessity of attracting new fans is not exactly unique to New York, and is one of the most daunting challenges facing racing throughout the United States. While any Board of Directors has a fiduciary responsibility to advance the interests of the business, selection of Board members also sends a message. The inability of any of our political leaders to find a single woman involved with horse racing to serve on the Board speaks volumes about the forward-thinking we can expect from this group.
I think other noteworthy omissions are the lack of a Latino member or a veterinarian. Anyone who has ever read a racing program or visited a backstretch knows that Latinos constitute a significant percentage of those with the actual hands-on experience working with horses. Given the recent attention paid to the health and safety of horses at the track, one would think a vet would provide an invaluable perspective to his or her fellow Board members. And here is an out-of-the box idea. Why not appoint Dr. Mary Scollay-Ward? She is the veterinarian from Kentucky who served on the Task Force reviewing the deaths at Aqueduct earlier this year, and would double the number of women on the Board.
There is, however, no shortage on the new Board of those with backgrounds in real estate development, investment banking, the legal profession or connections to the administration of the Governor’s father. Many of them have connections to horse racing, some with long-standing ties. But again, a message is being sent. When you want to take racing in a new direction appealing to a broader spectrum of fans, the Governor apparently thinks you need older white businessman, preferably with ties to the organization you are proposing to reform.
Of course, the truly troublesome concern is that there is no real message or vision for the future. The Governor has acknowledged that he does not know the industry well. When he says he wants to make New York racing the best in the country, one has to wonder what state he thinks is better. In the five months this takeover has been brewing, I think the only positive recommendations to come out are those by the Task Force on health and safety. There’s been nothing from his Administration other than continual bashing of NYRA.
In the Dicker article cited above, the Cuomo Administration source was quoted as saying, “The Saratoga meet will be the last hurrah for the blue bloods who have controlled the board for so long.” It’s now looking like one group of privileged white men have been replaced by another group of privileged white men, many of whom are the same.