I have a lasting memory from attending the second meeting of the Reorganization Board of the New York Racing Association. When the meeting ended around 5:30, I stepped out to snow gently falling in Manhattan; it was the first time I had seen snow in New York City. When I turned on to 33rd Street, the Empire State Building was lit up amid the snow. It was a beautiful scene, making me realize once again what a magical place this city can be.
The meeting itself was anticipated to deal with a considerably more prosaic topic: recent fatalities at Aqueduct that led Chairman David Skorton to issue a press release the week before announcing matters that would be addressed by the Board. While Skorton promised “serious discussions next week to consider these important issues,” the urgency apparently dissipated – or cooler heads prevailed – over the eight days following the press statement. Installing a synthetic track to replace the inner dirt track was deemed not to be a concern by Anthony Bonomo, chair of NYRA’s Equine Safety Committee, and the matter was referred to NYRA staff to review.
There was agreement on reducing the number of racing days per week – a change that seems to be universally supported – but would require legislative action. While I am fully aware that Governor Andrew Cuomo has demonstrated his ability to ram significant legislation through the Legislature in a matter of days – witness his takeover of NYRA or the recent gun bill – I am not seeing a similar interest for this proposal, even if this is his hand-picked Board. Given the unpredictability of the Legislature acting on anything, I was surprised the Board did not consider one of the ideas identified in Skorton’s press release – reducing the number of races per day. I do not know if this would also require legislation, but cutting one race per day for five days has the same effect as reducing racing days by one-half day per week.
Another item identified in the press release was “overall security measures related to pre-race security and racing integrity.” To address this concern, Bonomo recommended that NYRA establish its own rules and disciplinary procedures to identify and punish the rule-breakers. There is, understandably, a considerable level of frustration over the length of time it took the state’s regulatory agency, the Racing and Wagering Board, to finally implement action against trainer Richard Dutrow for his history of 65 drug violations. Much of the delay, of course, was caused by court proceedings and injunctions against the penalties. The notion that what we need is a second enforcement agency, with its own set of rules, is so ludicrous that it should have been summarily rejected because it would have the opposite effect than intended – opening a second avenue for miscreants to string out the process.
Perhaps ideas such as this are entertained because the Board recognizes the emphasis Chairman Skorton has brought to the safety and health of both the equine and human participants in the sport. Emblematic of that praiseworthy commitment is his announcement that NYRA has established the position of Equine Veterinary Medical Director, to whom the NYRA veterinary department would report. While this decision is one in which Skorton demonstrated a considerable personal investment, there are a couple of puzzling questions.
First, the idea that New York should have an Equine Veterinary Medical Director was recommended by the Task Force that was appointed last year to investigate the spike in equine fatalities at the 2011-12 Aqueduct winter meeting. Indeed, in a 100-page report that made hundreds of recommendations, this was a key one. The Task Force determined that having the NYRA veterinary department report directly to the Racing Office presented a “critical conflict-of-interest.” Because the Racing Office sought the large fields that result in increased handle (and revenue for NYRA), the vets were placed in a position where their advocacy for the horse could be “conditional and based upon the needs of the employer, rather than the needs of the horse.” There was anecdotal evidence of vets not scratching unsound horses, or feeling pressure to not scratch horses, as a result of the Racing Office’s financial goal.
The Task Force recommended that the Equine Medical Director be placed in the oversight regulatory body, with all the track vets reporting to that person. If that were not feasible, the Task Force concluded that the veterinary department should “immediately” be assigned to report to the stewards and have no accountability to the Racing Office. (I do not know if this latter change has been made in the five months since the Report was provided to the Governor.)
Although the Governor’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning April 1 contains funding for the Equine Medical Director at the new State Gaming Commission (that is replacing the Racing and Wagering Board), Skorton was adamant that the position would be at NYRA. He dismissed concerns expressed by Board members that the Task Force had recommended the vets be independent of NYRA, or that there could be a duplication between the NYRA position and one at the Gaming Commission. While I think his position is partly the result of his focus on safety and health issues, I suspect that an element of his thinking is based on his background as a cardiologist, an experience he related during the meeting. What he may be missing, however, is that the potential for a continuing conflict-of-interest between the vets and their “employer” exists as long as the vets are at NYRA. Even if the Racing Office is not involved in overseeing the recommendations of the veterinarians, they will continue to “encourage” trainers to enter horses to fill out fields. The first time a vet scratches a horse entered as a result of entreaties from the Racing Office, we can be assured that whoever is in charge of the vets will hear the screaming.
The second puzzling aspect of Skorton’s decision is that he already has a chief of the veterinary department who can accomplish much of what the Task Force recommended. If he doesn’t think the incumbent is up to the challenge, replace him. If the reporting relationship to the Racing Office has not been changed, do it. The important thing here is to implement the changes recommended by the Task Force as quickly as possible, and not become potentially embroiled in a bureaucratic turf dispute right off the bat.
Skorton has clearly demonstrated after two meetings that he is the one in charge. He sets the agenda and gets his way on every vote. Indeed, in five hours of meetings there has not been a single dissenting or abstaining vote. But the Board member everyone in the media loves to quote is Bobby Flay, the chef. Flay has yet to actually say anything that has not been said repeatedly over the years, but he is fluent in the sound bites loved by the media. If the same comments were made by a Board member not as well known to the general public – that is, everyone else on the Board – I doubt the statements would be quoted.
One item that received media attention was Skorton’s proposal for a “Three Year Work Plan.” It’s not a work plan in the sense of … uhh .. being a plan for work that will be done, but a rather anodyne statement of goals. (You can read it here.) One item, however, warrants attention given last week’s publicity about financial settlements being sought by fired NYRA executives Charles Hayward and Patrick Kehoe (as well as Ellen McClain, the current head of NYRA who announced her resignation at the meeting.) The confidential settlement discussions were leaked by a “several gaming officials” according to the article in the Times Union. There is, of course, only one purpose to be served in leaking such information and that is to discredit with the public any legitimate claims that Hayward and Kehoe have.
What does this have to do with the work plan? One of its items is to “improve and promote transparency and integrity in the management of all NYRA operations.” When the head of the NYRA Board’s Audit Committee acknowledges that Hayward and Kehoe are contractually entitled to severance and legal fees, but NYRA is not honoring those contractual obligations, I do not see how that “promotes integrity.” The stated reason for ignoring the contract, according to the Audit Committee chair, was to wait for a report supposedly being done by the state’s Inspector General. Setting aside whether that is a legitimate reason to breach a contract, he apparently hadn’t bothered to check with the IG on the report’s status in the three months since this new Board was appointed.
This tactic is all too reminiscent of the approach taken by Governor Cuomo and his aides when they sought to take control of NYRA last spring. There were, of course, the leaks to trusted media sources, but also the unconscionable slandering of the prior members of the old NYRA Board with accusations that have never been explained or justified. If Chairman Skorton really wants to make an immediate mark for the new era of NYRA, he will dispense with this nonsense and make decisions based on the law and merits, and not on the political needs of the Governor.