As part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s effort to streamline state government and make it more efficient, the Legislature established the State Gaming Commission. The separate state agencies that regulated gaming activities, including the Lottery and the Racing and Wagering Board, were brought under a seven-member Commission that would bolster New York’s role in an “increasingly competitive market place,” and ensure public confidence that the state’s gaming would be of the “highest integrity, credibility and quality.” The law was passed more than a year ago.
The Gaming Commission was to begin operations on October 1, 2012, but the legislation under which New York State took control of the New York Racing Association delayed the effective date for four months. The Racing and Wagering Board ceased operations on January 31 with its powers and responsibilities transferred to the new entity. There is only one problem. While the Commission has a shiny new web site, there is no commission. The Governor controls five of the seven appointments with the Senate and Assembly getting one each. Early news reports identified two individuals who were to be selected, but the web site identifies “TBD” for each of the seven members. When we turn to the page for the Commission’s staff, it is blank. We know there is an Acting Executive Director since he issued a press release this week, but that is all that is publicly known about an organization that was to bring Cuomo’s much-heralded, but rarely delivered, “transparency” to gambling activity regulated by the state.
Why is this important? For starters, it is the only body that has the ability to regulate what goes on in horse racing. The late Racing and Wagering Board closed out its tenure with changes governing the administration of drugs, as well as additional changes permitting the voiding of a claim if a horse was vanned from the track. These amendments were the result of a Task Force’s report analyzing a number of fatal injuries sustained at last year’s Aqueduct winter meet. It is not unusual that regulations have to be tweaked - indeed, the Racing and Wagering Board had to do it with some of these - but that ability is lost when there isn’t an entity with the authority to do it.
Second, the Governor’s failure to act further exacerbates the absence of any leadership in New York’s racing industry. The President of the New York Racing Association has been fired, the Chair of the NYRA Board is still learning the business, and now a key oversight body doesn’t exist. Thus, we have the silliness of “enhanced” security and drug testing for Saturday’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, a major prep race each year for the Kentucky Derby. According to the Cuomo Administration’s view of horse racing, only three races of the thousands run in New York each year deserve this heightened scrutiny: the Wood, Belmont Stakes and Travers. This sends the message that illegal drugging is a significant problem with racing, but these three events are the only ones worthy of added protection. While I am sure there must have been drug disqualifications in America’s Grade I races over the years, the only one that comes to mind is Dancer’s Image in the 1968 Kentucky Derby. Even though Santa Anita implemented a similar protocol for the Santa Anita Derby, these special security precautions are clearly nothing more than publicity stunts.
The joint NYRA-Gaming Commission announcement, however, may also have served another interest. A nascent controversy involving both track security and illegal drugging was reported by David Grening in The Daily Racing Form. Trainer Rudy Rodriguez was recently suspended by the stewards for two drug positives, a sanction he did not challenge. Rodriguez, coincidentally the trainer of Vyjack, the Wood’s second betting choice and 3rd place finisher, has been one of the most successful trainers on the New York circuit, but has also been the subject of many rumors and whispers about his possible use of illegal medications. The recent suspension was his second as a trainer, and the first since 2011. But on March 10, another Rodriguez horse tested positive.
What made the latest positive remarkable is that Rodriguez’ attorney claimed, as Grening reports, that NYRA’s failure to respond to Rodriguez’ February request for a security camera in a second barn shared with another trainer may have allowed tampering with his horses. That an unusually high level of banamine, a commonly used anti-inflammatory, appeared in the post-race test is, according to the attorney, strong evidence of tampering, indicating that Rodriguez may have been set up. Two owners who have horses with Rodriguez have offered a $40,000 reward for information on the tampering accusation. So, while the purported leadership of state officials responsible for what has been the country’s best racing flails around looking for the next meaningless press release, here is a real potential threat to the integrity of the sport.
If that isn’t a sufficient reason for the Governor to appoint the State Gaming Commission, we have the matter of bringing casinos to New York. Cuomo identified this as one of his major priorities in the 2012 State of the State, and the Legislature voted in favor of amending the state’s Constitution to permit up to seven sites. A second affirmative vote by the Legislature, as well as voter approval in a referendum, is necessary for the amendment to take effect. While a subsequent approval by the Legislature would seem to be a mere formality, the Governor has decided to alter his original proposal. He now wants the location of casino sites to be chosen by the Gaming Commission, a body on which he will controls five of the seven seats when he gets around to appointing them. Although the often somnolent Legislature regularly acquiesces to the Governor’s whims, this time they think they should have a say in the siting process, and perhaps even allow the voters of a proposed locale to have a vote. Cuomo has further muddied the waters by saying New York City should not have one, but Buffalo should. He may be thinking that if he appoints the Commission, he will have prematurely played his hand, thereby weakening his leverage with the Legislature.
In short, we do not know what is behind the Governor’s failure to appoint any members of an important regulatory body for more than a year after it was established. One fear is that he has simply lost interest. Another is that he doesn’t care about racing or casinos except to the extent either can improve the state’s bottom line. What we do know, however, is that there is not a good reason for his inaction. Last week’s federal indictments of a state senator and assemblyman gave the Governor the opportunity to express his outrage at a political environment that allows corruption. Perhaps he should consider the atmosphere he is fostering by failing to make the types of appointments that would help prevent the incompetence and corruption so vividly displayed last week. Certainly, New York’s horse racing could use some leadership.