On Wednesday, the New York Racing Association announced that it was beginning a search for the new position of Equine Veterinary Medical Director in conjunction with the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. The position will report to the College.
Establishing the position of EVMD was a key recommendation of the Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety that was convened last March following an increase in equine fatalities during the Aqueduct winter meet. The Task Force identified a number of factors that may have contributed to the increase, one of which were inadequate protocols for the racetrack veterinarians who were responsible for clearing horses to run. In addition, the Task Force concluded that having the NYRA veterinary department report to the Racing Office presented a “critical conflict-of-interest” since the Racing Office had a financial incentive to maximize the size of fields for its races. Accordingly, the Task Force recommended that the vets instead report to an EVMD within the state regulatory body overseeing racing, which is now the State Gaming Commission.
Setting aside for the moment whether Cornell University should now be approving horses to participate in NYRA races, there are troubling aspects to the manner in which NYRA came to this decision. When the NYRA Reorganization Board, created after Governor Andrew Cuomo decided last May that the state should control New York’s thoroughbred racing, held its first meeting in December, it voted to operate NYRA in accordance with the state’s Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law. Chairman David Skorton said any decisions would be discussed and decided in meetings open to the public. Not only was the decision to have the EVMD report to Cornell not discussed in an open meeting, it was contrary to a decision made by the Reorganization Board at its last open meeting on January 25.
At that meeting, the hiring of the EVMD was one of the few agenda items that generated much discussion. Skorton announced his intention to locate the position at NYRA, a view that at least two Board members questioned because it was contrary to the Task Force recommendations, as well as contrary to Governor Cuomo’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year that funded the position at the Gaming Commission. Skorton, however, was adamant that the position should be within NYRA and assured the Board members that he would handle any obstacles to placing it there. As it has done with every Skorton proposal to date, the Board unanimously acquiesced.
So, in the space of less than three weeks, Chairman Skorton violated his own pledge to make decisions in open meetings, and announced a position contrary to one taken at such a meeting, and contrary to the Governor’s budget. He has also ignored one of the goals announced in his “work plan” approved unanimously by the Board at the February meeting to “improve and promote transparency and integrity in the management of all NYRA operations.”
Aside from the imperious manner in which this significant decision was made, what are the merits of having Cornell run racetrack veterinary operations? I should emphasize, at the outset, that I have nothing but the highest regard for the College of Veterinary Medicine (and once had one of my own horses treated there). But this is a major step. First of all, it removes accountability for the management of the veterinary operations from the bodies authorized by the Legislature and the Governor to conduct and oversee racing - specifically, NYRA, the Reorganization Board and the State Gaming Commission. Should there be a problem similar to the one at Aqueduct last year, who is going to hold Cornell University accountable? I have certainly had my share of criticism for the manner in which state government took over NYRA last year, but at least the state actors assumed responsibility.
Now one person who is empowered to hold the College of Veterinary Medicine accountable is the University President, one David Skorton. I find it intriguing that the reason the Task Force recommended placing the EVMD at the independent regulatory body is to remove the “critical conflict-of-interest” from having the position at NYRA. But will not the President of Cornell University have a similar conflict? It will not be from that of a Racing Office needing large fields to generate a bigger handle, but would not a controversy over racing fatalities threaten Cornell’s reputation as a top-flight academic institution and its ability to attract the best talent, to say nothing of its ability to raise money? Cornell’s incentive would be to reduce that possibility by taking the most risk adverse position, thereby reducing fields and handle, a result that would be counter to the interests of the Chairman of NYRA’s Board.
The most troubling aspect of this latest decision by Chairman Skorton, however, is that it may be illustrative of a tendency to make ill-conceived decisions without regard to the possible implications. Before the January Board meeting, he announced a series of measures the Board would discuss to address fatalities at this year’s Aqueduct meeting. When the Board convened a week later, only one of the ideas - reducing the number of racing days - was given serious consideration. While the notion of Cornell having a role in racing operations may have merits that are not readily apparent to me, it is an example of a subject that would merit serious discussion before announcing a fait accompli. Before Chairman Skorton continues with this approach, he may not want to lose sight of the fact that such an approach is one for which the prior Board was often criticized.
I also hope that the NYRA Reorganization Board appreciates the importance of restoring stability to New York racing - a condition that clearly has been absent since state regulators commenced their attack on the “old” NYRA a year ago. While the most visible example of the instability may be the failure to replace the former CEO since he was fired over nine months ago, the delays in taking many significant actions only exacerbates the uncertainty. Owners and breeders thinking about making long-term commitments to New York racing are certainly thinking long and hard before opening the checkbook.