John Hendrickson resigned his position as the governor’s adviser to the New York Racing Association Reorganization Board on June 7, saying his advice was not being taken and he was frustrated at the government for not keeping its promises.
Hendrickson held the post as a nonvoting member of the special board since it was put in place after the state took over NYRA in 2012. He and his wife, Mary Lou Whitney, are mainstays at Saratoga Race Course during the meet each summer. He said he had enough of what the government was doing.
“There’s a laundry list I could say,” Hendrickson said last Thursday. “I just think this has been a long time coming. I’ve been very frustrated. I don’t like having to speak out against the governor. It’s not personal. It’s about factions. Marylou and I are very disappointed.”
Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spokesman Richard Azzopardi issued a statement thanking Hendrickson for his service and that “the governor and the Legislature saved NYRA from yet another bankruptcy in 2012 and installed a board and management that, by every metric, has been a success.”
Hendrickson questioned the statement and whether the governor’s office had its facts correct.
“They avoided in bankruptcy in 2008,” Hendrickson said. “The governor had nothing to do with that. And to say the governor saved racing is like saying, ‘I took my friend out on a boating trip, threw him overboard with concrete sneakers, pulled him up and said I rescued him.’ ”
Hendrickson is not the only member of the Saratoga racing community frustrated by the current situation facing NYRA and racing in Saratoga.
Before the end of the current legislative session, each house of the Legislature will put bills to a vote about the re-privatization of NYRA. The bills put forward by Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, and Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, during the spring do not line up exactly with the governor’s proposal.
Jack Knowlton of Sackatoga Stables is frustrated that it took the governor so long to come forward with his proposal.
“Typically, it’s the responsibility of the executive to take the initiative and putting something on the table,” Knowlton said Monday. “Then, if it isn’t something that’s immediately accepted by the Legislature, you negotiate and hopefully come up with a bill that everybody can live with.”
Knowlton and Hendrickson, along with other members of the local community, see the governor’s plan for re-privatization as keeping too much state control over NYRA. The governor’s proposal would have nearly half the NYRA board appointed by state leaders, including five of them being his appointees.
Both are members of the Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing group that has endorsed the legislation being proposed by Woerner and Marchione. Their combined bill puts more control in the hands of private members and ensures that everyone is represented with a voting voice.
The bipartisan effort wanted to keep a narrow scope focused on re-privatization. Woerner feels the reorganization board has done well to rebuild the organization and improve the safety of the horses, which was a concern when the state took over NYRA.
But, she believes it is time for NYRA to be a private, nonprofit organization again as was planned when the state took over four years ago.
Woerner on Tuesday said the bill is supported by both local Democrats and Republicans and that says something about the importance of racing to the Saratoga community.
“There’s no stronger statement about how important the future New York racing and the New York Racing Association is to Saratoga County, to the broader Capital Region community, than the statement this is truly a bipartisan effort from the start,” Woerner said. “We do recognize that this is central to the economy of the Capital District, so that’s where our focus is.”
Over the weekend, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an audit of NYRA that said “NYRA relies on video lottery terminals to stay in the black, but that revenue stream isn’t guaranteed to continue as strongly, especially as new casinos open up across the state.”
Woerner argued that a more independent NYRA could put together a long-range plan that would include developing different revenue streams.
Charles Wait Sr., a former member of the NYRA Board of Directors and now a member of the Concerned Citizens executive board, recalled that the NYRA board had tried to look into different forms of revenue in the past, but state involvement slowed the process.
“We tried several different avenues to get into the nationwide ADW betting platform and it took us years to get approval from the state to do it,” Wait said. “We want to do one in-state [and] they would let us do that. We wanted to get a change in tax code [and] they wouldn’t let us do that.
“We finally had to partner with a separate company out of state in order to get a nationwide betting platform that Churchill Downs already has. That’s just one example of state interference impeding NYRA’s ability to generate further sources of revenue for the state.”
The Saratoga Springs city government supports re-privatization of NYRA as well.
“If it’s not the right time now, then let’s keep working on it,” Yepsen said of re-privatization. “But, let’s get it right because whatever is decided next by state legislators, the governor [or] the gaming commission will impact Saratoga Springs heavily.”
Tom Durkin, now retired, but longtime announcer for NYRA, believes it is important for the legislation to get done this week and not leave the future in question. The NYRA board needs to be able to plan for the future, but so do those involved with the racing itself.
“You’ve got to look forward to see what things are going to be like in a couple years,” Durkin said, in reference to breeders, owners and trainers. “If you’re a breeder, you’re not going to get any return on any action you take in the spring of 2016 until the summer of 2019.”
Reach Gazette intern Andrew Pugliese at 395-3191, [email protected] or @ByPugs on Twitter.
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