Saratoga County

NYRA threatens layoffs

A week before the New York Racing Association’s temporary agreement to run horse racing ends, NYRA o

A week before the New York Racing Association’s temporary agreement to run horse racing ends, NYRA on Wednesday sent letters to employees and horsemen saying half of its work force will be laid off on Feb. 14.

But state legislators and the governor’s office said Wednesday evening that an agreement on what some describe as a new 25-year franchise for NYRA is very close to approval.

“It could happen tonight, it could happen tomorrow,” said horse trainer Richard Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

Violette referred to discussions he had Wednesday with state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, and others.

“It looks like there will be racing,” Violette said. “But nobody is particularly happy about everything.”

NYRA has operated the Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct horse racing tracks since the mid-1950s. Its latest franchise ended on Dec. 31 but an Oversight Board has approved short extensions so that NYRA could continue to run its annual winter meet at Aqueduct in Queens.

“I believe that an agreement on a racing framework will be announced very shortly,” Bruno said in a statement released late Wednesday afternoon.

“Meetings are scheduled [Wednesday night],” said Jennifer Givner, a spokeswoman for Gov. Eliot Spitzer. “We are making progress and believe we will reach agreement by the Feb. 13th deadline.”

Last fall, Spitzer announced his plan to grant NYRA a new 30-year racing franchise. Since then the governor’s proposal has been debated and negotiated by leaders of the state Senate and Assembly.

The new 25-year franchise being negotiated in Albany would apparently include a review every four years with financial and other benchmarks for NYRA to meet. If NYRA didn’t meet these benchmarks, then the franchise could be revoked, according to people close to the negotiations.

Neither Bruno’s office nor the governor’s office would confirm details of the proposed new NYRA franchise. The proposed franchise would also include a state appropriation to get NYRA out of bankruptcy.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Scott Johnson said Wednesday evening that he was aware an agreement on a new NYRA franchise was very close.

Johnson said he and the entire city of Saratoga Springs received the news “with a great sense of relief.”

“The process has gone on too long,” Johnson said. “Now we can put this behind us.”

Saratoga city officials say the annual summer Saratoga racing meet at the Saratoga Race Course is the foundation of its tourism economy.

The letters distributed Wednesday by NYRA tell horsemen to find other stabling arrangements for their thoroughbreds now housed at Belmont Park and Aqueduct, which is in the middle of its winter racing season.

The letter to NYRA’s roughly 1,200 employees tells them that many workers would be laid off and others put on a reduced work schedule starting Feb. 14.

“While we will continue to pursue every option to forestall this shutdown, all indications point to the fact that we will be shutting down, and so I felt it was fair and prudent to give you this notice,” the letter from NYRA Chief Executive Officer Charles Hayward states.

About 600 to 700 employees would be laid off under the plan, including 20 people now working at Saratoga Race Course during the off-season — 16 maintenance workers, two plumbers and two carpenters.

Overall, the layoffs would affect pari-mutuel clerks, assistant starters, whitecaps, maintenance, admissions cashiers, parking attendants, program sellers, jockey valets, horse van drivers, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, cleaners and operating engineers.

Some employees would stay, including a small number of maintenance employees, engineers and security workers. Executive and administrative employees and other workers in the racing and pari-mutuel offices would start a four-day work week and face a 20 percent reduction in salary.

“Key functions in the racing and mutuel departments will also be maintained in order to facilitate a quick resumption of racing operations once we resolve the franchise issue. Depending on the timing and progress of franchise developments, layoffs in all of these areas may become necessary,” the letter said.

Notifications were being sent to the unions involved, the letter states.

Backstretch workers, who are employed by individual trainers and don’t work for NYRA, also would be affected, as training at the backstretch of Belmont Park and Aqueduct would cease on Feb. 20 and horsemen would have to remove their horses by Feb. 27, the letter to horsemen states.

Training and stabling could be extended if horsemen pick up the tab for backstretch operations, the letter said.

There are 600 horse stalls at Aqueduct and more than 2,000 horses training at Belmont.

“We are aware of the disastrous effect this closure will have on the extended community of horsemen, backstretch workers, jockeys and NYRA employees and vendors and want you to know we have done everything possible to avoid this situation and of our profound disappointment at having to take this course of action.”

About 1,000 backstretch workers also live in housing at Belmont Park, so they would lose their homes if the backstretch closes.

“It’s an expensive place for us to operate when we’re making no money,” said NYRA spokesman John Lee.

The letter to employees also explains NYRA’s financial plight: it can’t pay the $75 million in bankruptcy claims against it until a permanent agreement is reached.

“In short, NYRA must have a long-term franchise agreement to continue racing,” the letter states.

“Cash is obviously an issue for us,” Hayward said in an interview last month.

In addition, NYRA loses money at Aqueduct, unlike at Saratoga where it gains cash, he said.

So that means that another temporary extension would dig NYRA deeper into the red, Lee said Wednesday.

“The negative cash flow of operations at this time of year would show up pretty quickly.”

In an interview last month, Hayward said the state and NYRA were very close to a final agreement. “If we can’t get an agreement done by the first week of February, it tells me that somebody doesn’t want to get an agreement done,” he said.

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