The Board of Directors of the New York Racing Association held the only meeting it is scheduled to have over a six-month period on Wednesday. The public portion of the meeting lasted all of 56 minutes. The meeting’s brevity and lack of any meaningful discussion indicates either that the real discussions are happening behind closed doors in violation of state law, or that there are no meaningful discussions. I am not sure which is worse.
It is not as though NYRA does not have significant matters on its plate. It is charged with recommending a reprivatization plan to the Legislature by April 18 next year. In addition, NYRA continues to operate a deficit in its racing operations, and must decide what, if anything, to do about the VLT revenues that enable it to operate in the black. Then there is declining attendance, even at its signature Saratoga meet, and the question of whether Aqueduct should remain open.
You would not know from attending the meeting, however, that anything is amiss. CEO Chris Kay engaged in his typical happy talk. You have to give him credit, however, for mustering enthusiasm for a Belmont Stakes music line-up that includes Frank Sinatra, Jr. and an Eagles cover band. Board Chairman David Skorton proclaimed that it was a “very positive year,” that NYRA was “closing in on a balanced budget,” and added that Belmont Stakes Day is a “perfect example of the progress we have made.”
There is no question that June 7 has the potential to be a special day of racing and handicapping with six Grade I events. But the hopefully outstanding card was achieved by eviscerating Belmont’s Memorial Day, an event that had featured the Met Mile and two other Grade I’s. This year the feature was a Grade III that lured a less-than-robust 6,946 patrons through its turnstiles.
But in terms of the “progress” claimed by Skorton, it is not clear what he means. NYRA ended the first quarter with a loss of $10.2 million from racing operations even though handle from all sources increased compared with the same three months last year. Even after including the revenues from VLT”s, the deficit was, as Chris Kay reported, “only” $1.5 million. Attendance at Aqueduct was down six per cent from last year despite three more racing days. (Yes, I know it was an unpleasant winter, but I believe the facility has heat.)
I fear that Skorton’s notion of progress has nothing to do with improvements for fans or the horsemen, but rather just the fact that they are not the old and discredited NYRA. (Many of the improvements at tracks were actually initiated by the former group.) Neither NYRA’s leaders nor other high-level state officials miss an opportunity to boast about their running racing in an open and transparent manner. The reality, however, is that NYRA does neither.
NYRA is required to follow New York laws governing access to public records and public meetings. I have detailed previously NYRA’s blatant disregard for the public records law. The NYRA Board misrepresented the financial terms of CEO Chris Kay’s contract and then attempted to cover up the distortion. This latest meeting of the Reorganization Board indicates they may be taking a similarly cavalier approach to the open meeting law.
At his first meeting as Chairman, David Skorton stated that all meetings of both the full Board and its committees would be public. The Executive Committee, chaired by Skorton, has never had an open meeting; the Finance Committee has never held one; the Long-Term Planning Committee has never held one.
The full Board does conduct a public meeting, but it is so devoid of content and serious discussion that it is legitimate to question whether it is just a sham to feign compliance with the law. If it is indeed a sham, it raises the possibility that meaningful discussions on the future of New York racing are taking place in secret.
The other possibility, of course, is that no such discussions are taking place, even behind closed doors. It was at last August’s Board meeting that Chairman Skorton stated that NYRA should start operating as if the VLT revenues are no longer there. His proposal was greeted with significant dissent, an unusual occurrence for this Board. Since then, there has been almost no mention of this crucial matter. Nor has there been an actual discussion of what is being considered for the reprivatization report that is due in a little over ten months.
The bottom line is that it is now almost two years since the Governor rammed through a somnolent Legislature, with the approval of a flaccid NYRA Board, a takeover of the organization running Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct. While they did a great deal of chest-thumping on how New York’s tracks would now witness substantial improvements with a competent and open leadership, I am hard-pressed to identify a single significant difference.