Saratoga County

Panel questions if NYRA doing right by race fans

The New York Racing Association might benefit from fewer daily races and shortening the winter meet

The New York Racing Association might benefit from fewer daily races and shortening the winter meet at Aqueduct.

At the Albany Law School conference on gambling and racing on Wednesday, Dick Powell, a former NYRA employee and current horse racing consultant, questioned whether long cards with 11 or 12 races are discouraging new fans from returning and also diluting the impact of a $45 million investment in purses at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga.

“For me it is fine, because I know how to spend time in between races,” said Powell of the long race days that sometimes don’t end until 7 p.m. This stretched out day isn’t creating new fans, he said, but rather ensuring that they don’t come back.

He added that a focus on online gambling also won’t attract new bettors and will only cater to existing fans. New fans can be generated only by a good experience at the track, but even then, he wondered whether racing is capable of generating a younger fan base.

Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, a Yonkers Democrat who chairs the Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee, rejected the idea that younger racing fans can’t be cultivated. He said it must start by fostering a family-friendly atmosphere that will teach children about racing, and they will then be interested in racing for years to come.

Regarding the practice of holding more races each day, he highlighted the fact that it goes against the prevailing theory that people want fewer races and more horses competing in each one. One repercussion of this trend, he warned, is that politicians and casual fans won’t recognize the positive impact of NYRA’s investment in higher purses. About half of the $93 million in video lottery terminal money from Aqueduct that NYRA receives is being spent on higher purses to make better races with more horses that will attract more gambling.

“The danger in what racing is doing, if you run too much racing … the net effect of all this VLT revenue … isn’t as apparent,” Powell said, explaining that the much-higher handles in some races are being softened by others.

His answer is to take fewer slices from the pie, which might even necessitate shutting down racing for some of the winter months.

“When racing was doing great in New York, it closed down in November and reopened in March,” he said in remarks after his panel Wednesday.

That decision can’t be made lightly, however, as any restructuring of race days needs to consider the people in the racing industry. Put starkly by Chris Wittstruck, director of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York and a panel moderator, cutting into the winter meet could have ramifications for the summer.

He said the Saratoga meet is a wonderful event, but it lasts for only 40 days and horsemen need daily racing. Without daily racing through the winter at Aqueduct, Wittstruck said, “You’re not going to have racing [in any form] for very long.”

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