Teresa Genaro of brooklynbackstretch.com caused me to revisit a position taken by David Skorton, President of Cornell University and the new Chairman of the New York Racing Association, with her article on the wagering ban for high-level NYRA employees. When I read the materials for the first meeting of NYRA’s Reorganization Board, only one item jumped out at me: NYRA’s “corporate officers” would be prohibited from wagering. There was also a ban on NYRA making political contributions, but, given that NYRA is now controlled by political appointees, that one is a no-brainer. And, of course, certain NYRA employees - for example stewards, vets and gate crew – should not be allowed to wager on New York races given their obvious ability to influence the outcome of a race. But what can the CFO or General Counsel do that would affect the result of a race?
This was one of the few agenda items that provoked any comment by the 17-member Board, of which eight members are appointees of the Cuomo Administration. When questioned, Skorton responded by saying he was “surprised” such a ban did not exist already, and that he expected top officers to be focused on their job responsibilities. The Board members who raised the issue quickly acquiesced in Skorton’s explanation. Although it was widely reported this agreement occurred after the Board was informed its members could still wager, it was not clear to me that their concurrence was motivated by self-interest (or, for that matter, a complete lack of awareness they were being hypocritical). Rather, I ascribed it to a Board unwilling to pursue any challenge to the Governor’s new guy.
At the time I thought Skorton’s position was, at best, weak. It’s not surprising that he was “surprised” that top officers could wager since, by his own admission, he does not “know much about horse racing.” That might lead an inquiring mind, especially one from academia, to investigate further. As Genaro points out in her article, major racing sites such as Keeneland and the Stronach Empire (Gulfstream and Santa Anita) do not appear to impose such a ban. (Churchill Downs did not return her call.)
So, what about his comment that he expects top officers to be focused on job responsibilities and not on cashing a ticket? Will he next prohibit fishing, watching TV, bike riding or having a garage sale? If he thinks the lure of putting down a wager indicates an insufficient commitment to one’s employer, what would he say of the President of an Ivy League college taking a part-time gig that not only requires travel to Manhattan or Saratoga Springs from Ithaca, but that (hopefully) requires a significant commitment to carrying out one of the Governor’s major initiatives?
It’s one thing to dismiss the Skorton comments as those of someone who has a steep (and quick) learning curve about a business in which he now has a significant role. (I don’t know what to make of the passivity of the 10 Board members who have prior experience on the NYRA Board.) What I find troubling, however, is what this says about the new Chair’s mindset on the gambling that is an essential part of the industry. It is hard to draw any inference other than that he thinks it reflects negatively on someone who does enjoy betting when he cannot trust highly paid executives to carry out their responsibilities while also placing an occasional wager.
There was another offhand comment made at the initial NYRA Board meeting that adds to my concern about where the bettor fits in the “new” NYRA. In a discussion about the cross-over between racino patrons and those attending the racing, one Board member (who I did not recognize) observed “a gambler is a gambler.” In addition to being remarkably patronizing, it could only be the view of someone who has never been to a facility where both activities are conducted, and is also ignorant of studies that show there is little cross-over.
It would be the height of irony - although pathos might be a more apt term - if a controversy over shortchanging successful bettors brings us a NYRA Board that is either ignorant of, or unconcerned about, the wagering fan.