New state-run NYRA, what are the odds?

Here we have the latest effort to keep horse racing alive in New York despite its natural decline in

Here we have the latest effort to keep horse racing alive in New York despite its natural decline in the face of competition.

State government is going to take it over for the next three years. The board of directors of the bungling, private, non-profit New York Racing Association is going to disband and be replaced by a board the majority of whose members will be appointed by government leaders — eight, including the chairman, by the governor, and two each by the Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker, which will be 12 government appointees out of a total of 17.

“We know that long-term this is not a venture for government to run,” Gov. Cuomo said at a press conference the other day announcing the change. But we also know that horse racing cannot survive in New York without being shored up by government, which he did not say but which was understood.

The sorry truth is that horse racing has been in decline across the country since the advent of lotteries and casinos, and lately the only way to keep it from expiring completely has been to shovel it some of the loot taken in by slot machines.

With the exception of Saratoga, and with the further exception of big events like the Kentucky Derby, people don’t much go to the races anymore. Day in and day out, at Aqueduct, Belmont and other tracks, the stands are largely empty.

Five thousand is a good crowd at Belmont, which has seats for 33,000.

We probably get a skewed view of the situation living next door to the still-popular Saratoga Race Course.

The best year for horse racing in New York was 1964, the year that New Hampshire instituted a lottery. In 1967 New York instituted its own lottery, in the 1980s Indian casinos came along, and it’s been downhill for the ponies ever since.

If politicians believed in the glories of the free market as much as they say they do, they would accept the fact philosophically and let the devil take the hindmost, but they can’t do that. There are people in New York, lots of them, who depend on horse racing for a living. They are breeders and trainers and jockeys, but they are also restaurant owners, innkeepers and bartenders in places like Saratoga.

So we’ve got all this mad scrambling going on, and all this shoveling of money. Gov. Cuomo said at his press conference that the state subsidizes the racing business to the tune of $675 million a year, which I didn’t know, but he insisted the business is still a “net positive” for the state on account of the economic activity that it generates, something on the order of $2.4 billion a year.

I hear these gambling “economic impact” numbers and I always think the same thing — if we would just dedicate ourselves full-time to betting we’d be in good shape. Too much time is wasted building and making things.

Then there is the nagging matter of the abusive treatment of the horses, which has long puzzled me. I mean, you’ve got a society where people get all weepy-eyed about a homeless pit bull and where they buy health insurance policies for their hamsters, but they think nothing of whipping the daylights out of a horse so as to squeeze one more dollar out of him, which is what racing is all about.

And not just whipping him but pumping him full of drugs so he can race when he’s not fit, which leads to horses breaking down on the track and having to be euthanized.

The New York Times did an investigation of the racing scene recently, if you happened to see it, reporting that in our fair state 366

horses died while racing or training during the three-year period 2009-11, and during the same time 159 horses tested positive for illegal drugs.

You might not think of that when you go to Saratoga on a balmy August afternoon, but that’s how the game is played.

“It erodes confidence in the industry,” Gov. Cuomo allowed. And I guess it does. Add to it the skimming of winnings by NYRA, and you’ve got a problem.

The part I enjoyed most about this temporary state takeover of NYRA is that the NYRA board of directors unanimously agreed to it, and wasn’t that gracious of them? I mean, to basically fire themselves?

I wasn’t in the backroom where the deal was negotiated, so I don’t know who said what, but the governor emphasized that the two sides had chosen to cooperate rather than fight in court, which I took to mean he was prepared to fight in court, maybe to strip NYRA of its 25-year franchise, if the board members didn’t come to heel. “Many lawyers have gotten rich on the relationship between NYRA and the state,” he noted.

He did promise that after three years control of the organization will revert to private hands, and we’ll just have to see how that works out.

Horsing around

As for the most irresistible news lead on the NYRA takeover story, the entries are, “No more horsing around for Gov. Cuomo as he seized the reins Tuesday of the scandal-scorched New York Racing Association,” from the Daily News, and, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo is betting that temporary state control of the New York Racing Association will put the troubled operation on the right track,” from this newspaper.

And the winner is, “No more horsing around … ” from the Daily News, despite my fealty to my own employer.

Also ran: “Cuomo reins in horse-racing agency,” from The Wall Street Journal.

Journalists can’t resist that sort of thing. Witness my own feeble “what-are-the-odds” attempt.

Categories: Opinion

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