If you were hoping for a vision of the future for New York’s racing from last week’s NYRA Board meeting, it was just more deja vu all over again.
The Wednesday meeting was the 11th of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Reorganization Board” and comes a little over a year before the Board must recommend legislation to remove state government from running New York’s racing. Given an abbreviated meeting that focused on the filthy conditions at Aqueduct Racetrack, however, you would not know what potentially significant changes may be on the horizon, let alone just off shore.
I am beginning to appreciate what it must be like to teach a junior high school class. I am not sure any Board member takes notes or can recollect what occurred at a prior meeting. The main topic for any meeting tends to be what a member just says off the top of his head. (I use the male pronoun consciously. Of the 21 Board members, 20 are white men.) This month the topic du jour was the conditions at Aqueduct.
One would think the conditions have to be deplorable since the Board member who raised the issue – Len Riggio – saw his undefeated colt Samraat prevail in a stirring stretch duel over two others, putting him squarely in the Kentucky Derby picture. Yet his experience, and that of his guests, was diminished because of an Aqueduct he described as “dirty” and “dangerous.”
I must say I was surprised that the cleanliness of Aqueduct is still an issue since it was also the main topic of conversation at the Board’s initial meeting in December, 2012. A month later, then-CEO Ellen McClain announced that NYRA had taken over cleaning the facility from Genting, the racino operator that co-locates its Video Lottery Terminals at the Aqueduct facility.
It turns out that NYRA is not yet responsible for the food service and cleaning of the areas where food is served – which is where Riggio had his Gotham Stakes experience. The portion of the facility that NYRA is responsible for? Check out the photographs from Alan Mann’s blog Left at the Gate. It may not be the box seats at Saratoga, but it rather obviously is not dirty or shabby.
Yet no one disputed Riggio’s assertion that Aqueduct is “dirty” and “dangerous.” No one – neither another Board member nor any member of the NYRA staff. And this from a group that never shrinks from proclaiming its commitment to bringing new fans to the sport. Predictably, the news coverage of the meeting was dominated by the conditions at the track as reported by a single Board member.
This discussion did, however, highlight two major shortcomings of the Board under the leadership of David Skorton, the President of Cornell University. The first is the lack of a meaningful or useful agenda. Unless there is a truly insignificant issue – for this meeting it was the election of two Board members to a committee – each agenda looks like every other one: CEO’s report, CFO’s report, Chairman’s report, etc., etc. There is never a specific topic on the agenda that would warrant a Board consisting of successful businessmen and professionals to actually put some thought into an issue prior to discussing it. Accordingly, the meeting then revolves around whatever random thought a particular Board member may utter, provided he gets it out before any other member raises his pet peeve.
The second problem is the lack of any sense there is a long-term vision, and a total lack of follow-up on any matters that require planning and execution. The condition of the food services at Aqueduct is a perfect example. At his first meeting in December, 2012, Skorton directed McClain to prepare a report on the contract with Genting because it was responsible for food services and cleaning the facility. At Wednesday’s meeting – 15 months later – that same contract was cited as an impediment from NYRA being able to improve the conditions in the dining area of which Riggio complained.
Another example stems from the bizarre reality that you can bet on a horse race in Hauppauge, Hoosick Falls or New Lebanon, but not in Manhattan. McClain identified the locating of betting terminals in New York City restaurants as a major priority. Two of current CEO Chris Kay’s top priorities are improving customer service and bringing financial stability to NYRA. Yet the proposal to expand wagering in New York City – an important way to both increase customer service and assist NYRA financially – has gone nowhere.
Chairman Skorton does, however, persistently insert, in an almost subliminal way, certain themes. For this meeting there is his view of the necessity of NYRA operating without the revenues from the VLT terminals. This has been a constant refrain over recent months. Then there was the spectre of NYRA having to soon make some “really hard decisions.” He did not identify what any of those hard decisions might be. And no one asked him.
Because of the immediacy of making those decisions, Skorton raised the possibility of having more frequent Board meetings – the next scheduled one is after Memorial Day – and said it should be discussed at the end of the meeting. There was certainly a sufficient amount of time – the scheduled two-hour meeting adjourned in 80 minutes – but the subject apparently slipped his mind and no one else raised it
NYRA is facing major issues – continuing Aqueduct as a race track, operating without VLT revenues, and the structuring of the next new NYRA which has an expiration date of October, 2015. When Chairman Skorton raised the possibility of more frequent meetings, it was with the notion of discussing these matters in a public forum. While open discussions are the way to go for a government agency that controls an industry employing tens of thousands and has such an impact on New York’s economy, I doubt that there really is a desire to have those talks in public. The deafening silence to his proposal – as well as his forgetting about it – is sufficient testament to that. Or perhaps it is another example of the short attention span of the Board.
Skorton did let slip a very revealing comment during the meeting. In stressing the importance of balancing NYRA’s budget, he said it was to aid those people coming next to run NYRA. Then he said the next people are “hopefully us.”
That may be his hope, but there are many who think New York has already had enough of Andrew Cuomo’s control of New York racing. And what can you say about a group that spends fifteen months talking about – but not fixing – the problem of a dirty restaurant?