We may learn this week the direction the leadership of the New York Racing Association wishes to take the racing and breeding industries of the state. There is a meeting of NYRA’s Board of Directors scheduled for Wednesday, November 12. Many of those involved with the thoroughbred industries are hoping for the best, although the current NYRA leadership has no past performances that warrant optimism.
The current Board was appointed over two years ago following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s takeover of NYRA. The legislation creating the current entity put government firmly in charge with the state’s political leadership appointing 12 of the 17 voting Board members. The Board was charged with submitting a plan by April, 2015, that would recommend a “statutory plan for the prospective not-for-profit governing structure” for NYRA.
Board Chairman David Skorton indicated that Wednesday’s meeting may be the first step in starting to discuss seriously the future of New York racing. That this Board has been around for more than two years and has waited until now to have those discussions is, of course, an indication of how dysfunctional – or political – they have been. Here are some of the matters that should be addressed in the five months before their plan must be presented:
- Governing structure of the body that runs racing at Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct: The statutory language of “not-for-profit governing structure” leaves open the terrifying prospect that state government will continue to control racing. Chairman Skorton said as much at one Board meeting when he said the new entity would be “hopefully us.” While one does not know how much NYRA believes its press releases of how great they have been over the past two years, if they are that delusional, it is not a big leap for them to recommend they remain in charge. If that is not the recommendation, however, there are a myriad of fascinating issues concerning the selection of the new NYRA. How, exactly, is that to be accomplished, and what will the role be of the Governor and legislative leaders? Will people actually knowledgeable about racing and breeding have a significant voice?
- What is the future of VLT revenues that have been crucial to NYRA’s sustainability? There had been a drumbeat by the Governor and his top racing appointees (Skorton, Budget Director and NYRA Board member Robert Megna and Franchise Oversight Board Chair Rob Williams) that NYRA had to achieve profitability without consideration of the revenues guaranteed by law to NYRA. While that campaign had been put on hold while another more important campaign was taking place, now that we are past Election Day, is that issue going to take center stage again? Convenient, isn’t it, that serious discussions were delayed until the gubernatorial race was decided?
- What is the future of Aqueduct and winter racing? There have been reports that the Cuomo Administration would like to sell Aqueduct. After all, all those real estate developers who were such heavy campaign contributors need something for their largesse. NYRA CEO Chris Kay told one group that Aqueduct loses $11.9 million during its winter meet. Now anytime Kay gets near a number, it is time to pay attention. In a written report to the NYRA Board he said that an indication of the success of NYRA’s “Big Day” concept of racing was the “$574 million” Pick 6 carryover from the July 5 card. $574 million. He has also said that an indication of the enhanced guest experience at Saratoga is increased spending by fans, actually citing the higher admission and parking fees as examples. So when he says that Aqueduct winter racing loses almost $12 million per year, it’s time to ask for a detailed explanation of that figure.
- Does NYRA care about New York’s breeding industry? The discussion of winter racing is inextricably intertwined with the future of the New York-bred program. Almost one-half of the NYRA’s NY-bred races are run at Aqueduct, and are crucial to the sustainability of the breeding program. Not only is the New York-bred program on the upswing, but it provides some of the most lucrative incentives to breeders. (Dayatthespa became the first Grade I Breeders’ Cup winner this year, and each juvenile race on the dirt saw a third-place finish from a NY-bred – Upstart in the Juvenile and Wonder Gal in the Juvenile Fillies.) The winter meeting gives local owners and trainers a place to race their stock, a particularly important consideration if we want to maintain the low-profile operations in the game. Not everyone can afford to move from New York to Florida during the cold weather months.
I give NYRA credit if Wednesday’s meeting is the start of an open, public debate about these issues. It’s a conversation that should have begun a long time ago. Board Chairman Skorton has been talking for at least 15 months about the hard choices facing NYRA and New York’s racing without specifying what he means. I realize the Cuomo Administration has kept a lid on all matters that present difficult decisions until the political campaign was completed, but there are 30,000 jobs at stake in both the racing and breeding industries.
One of the major benefits of having that public discussion is that it will give the many knowledgeable and experienced horse people a say in how things should go. Neither Chairman Skorton nor CEO Kay has any background in the business and, quite frankly, neither has demonstrated anything more than a rudimentary familiarity with the issues. The fear, of course, is that any decisions are going to be made in the way that seems too typical of the Governor and his appointees – behind closed doors with no airing of the competing considerations. A recent news report that a decision on expanding the Saratoga meet was made in a secret meeting that violated the state’s Open Meetings Law does not reduce the apprehension. We can at least hope that this time it will be different.