Last Wednesday was the third meeting of the Reorganization Board of the New York Racing Association and, quite frankly, there is not much going on with this group. When a NYRA press release is reduced to identifying a highlight of the meeting as approval of the minutes from the prior meeting, it is time to start wondering when the new Board, appointed five months ago, is going to start dealing with the important issues facing New York racing.
If there was a newsworthy event coming from the meeting, I guess it would be the recommendation of the Board’s Compensation Committee to pay the new CEO a base salary of $300,000 with a another $250,000 available in incentive payments for meeting goals that have yet to be identified. A consultant to the Compensation Committee had advised that a position of this nature would warrant a salary of between $600,000 and $1.1 million, but Committee Chair Vincent Tese was leery of a “quasi-public” entity such as the new NYRA paying that level of compensation. It perhaps goes without saying that the talent pool available for the NYRA position is going to be reduced significantly if the available candidates are limited to those willing to accept a guaranteed salary that is only half of the minimum amount the position is worth. And it may only be a two-year job since the current Board is supposed to transition to a new entity by October of 2015.
While the salary is one issue, I think an even bigger one may be the Board’s lack of anything resembling a big picture vision for the future of New York racing. When Governor Andrew Cuomo decided almost a year ago that he should be in charge of thoroughbred racing in New York, it was not clear to me what he intended to accomplish by seizing control. Part of the reason for the uncertainty is the simple fact that he failed to articulate a reason for his action, and seemed to rely on a general sentiment that the old NYRA was somehow out of control and needed to be replaced. Setting aside whether that perception had any merit - and I do not think it did - the lack of a concrete positive agenda appears to have continued to this day and has clearly affected the level of activity on the government’s hand-picked new Board.
It has also been almost a year since the former CEO was fired, and it has taken this long for the new Board to authorize the hiring of a search firm to look for a replacement. So what is the response when candidates referred by the search firm to the Board’s interviewing committee ask for the Board’s vision for NYRA going forward? I suppose one answer could be that the Chairman David Skorton has appointed a committee on developing the long-term vision and they are expected to make a report by July 1. But other than a legitimate focus on health and safety matters, I cannot think of a single other matter advanced by this Board that represents a change from the past.
At the recent meeting, Board member Bobby Flay said he had been approached by Breeders’ Cup officials about whether there was an “appetite” to bring the 2014 Cup back to New York for the first time since 2005. One member identified what had been obstacles in the past, neither one of which Flay thought was a “deal breaker.” There was a discussion of the Lasix issue, a matter that has now been “fixed” by the Breeders’ Cup announcement that the Lasix ban would not be extended beyond the two-year old races. But there was no discussion about the desirability of bringing the Cup to New York. No discussion. Even though a decision by the Breeders’ Cup on the 2014 site is expected to be made within weeks, Chairman David Skorton decided that a NYRA bid was “not a decision we will make today” because of his stated need to get educated about the issues. For all practical purposes, that means he did make a decision and the 2014 Cup will not be coming to Belmont Park.
This is typical of a pattern that has emerged clearly at the first three meetings of the Board. If the Chairman does not approve of a matter, it will not be brought to a vote. When there is a vote, it has always been unanimous. Even though the Board is comprised of successful professionals and business people, there is a desultory aspect to these meetings that is both surprising and dispiriting. There are Board members who bring a passion and insight that is valuable - Rick Violette of the Horsemen’s Association comes to mind - but for the most part there is little meaningful discussion taking place.
There are things going on, but aside from the safety and health matters - and I do not mean to minimize those efforts - what is being done was begun by former CEO Charlie Hayward and his successor Ellen McClain. (Even the heavy lifting on the health and safety matters was done by the Task Force that reported on them last summer.) NYRA has a new web site, plans to bring OTB back to New York City, and has plans to construct a grandstand at Saratoga’s training track that will allow the public to watch morning workouts. Such projects not only enhance the appeal of NYRA’s product, but are the kinds of things that will help bring desperately needed new fans to the game.
One advantage of the new NYRA is that Board meetings are open to the public (and are available as a video on the web site). At the last meeting, a self-described railbird asked me why McClain was being fired. I could not come up with an answer, and had to speculate that it was for unknown political reasons because she has impressed me as being competent and knowledgeable about both racing and the business of racing. The same can be said about other NYRA officials from my observations.
He is not the last person who is going to question where NYRA is going. Governor Cuomo has said he does not know much about horse racing, but there is also a fear that he doesn’t really care about it and would not mind if the sport withered away. While the NYRA Board consists of well-intentioned people, there has yet to be any indication that we are going to get the leadership from them that New York and the sport need.