With about four months remaining before a report from the New York Racing Association’s reorganization board is due, the future of the not-for-profit overseer of the state’s three thoroughbred tracks remains unclear at best.
Chris Wittstruck, an attorney who moderated a panel discussion on NYRA’s future at the Saratoga Institute on Racing and Gaming Law Conference, noted a prevailing rumor that the board will opt to bid out the franchise to a private company might not even be legal. The statute enacted by the Legislature in 2012 specifically calls for a “prospective not-for-profit governing structure” of NYRA and mentions nothing of turning the franchise over to a private entity.
“This is a not-for-profit,” Wittstruck said during the conference at the Gideon Putnam Hotel on Tuesday. “How can the NYRA board recommend something contrary to the statute?”
Even if the goal is to privatize the now state-owned tracks, Wittstruck questioned whether the state could attract a bidder. For five decades, he said, the state has treated NYRA like a “political football” — one punted at the whim of politicians in Albany. “Who would want to bid on this knowing that what the state giveth, the state, in an instant — in a fit of pique — could take away?” he said.
Other options include returning NYRA’s board to some semblance of private control, whether it’s an all-private board or one that is controlled by a private majority. Of course, there’s a chance the public reorganization board appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature in 2012 might simply decide to extend their authority over NYRA.
“Why couldn’t the present board indicate the long-term plan is to extend the reorganization board for another three years, another six years, another 10 years?” asked Wittstruck, who also serves on the board of directors for the Standardbred Owners Association of New York. “I guess that’s possible.”
The discussion also included Albany Law School professor Patrick Connors and Rick Violette, head of the New York Thoroughbred Association, who serves as a non-voting member of NYRA’s 17-member board.
Absent from the panel was NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay, who declined to attend or send a representative in his place. Anthony Bonomo, a voting board member who was scheduled to attend, was a “last-minute scratch,” according to Wittstruck.
Though NYRA spokesman John Durson Jr. didn’t comment on Kay’s absence, he acknowledged the association’s executive management team is planning to present its recommendations to the reorganization board in 2015. He indicated the board will submit the plan to Cuomo and the Legislature in accordance with a previously announced timeline.
“It would be premature to speculate on recommendations that are not yet complete,” he said in an email.
Wittstruck said other possible recommendations have slowly started to materialize in the media, but none that seem concrete as the reorganization board nears its report. Statutorily, recommendations are expected to be delivered to the Legislature sometime in late April.
Wittstruck said they could include extending the racing meet at the Saratoga Race Course, which already includes 40 days of racing, or include simulcast betting at bars in New York City for members of NYRA Rewards — an account wagering platform. One prevalent notion is that the reorganization board is contemplating ending racing at one of its two downstate tracks. Last week, NYRA board member Michael Dubb, co-chairman of NYRA’s Long-Term Planning Committee, said there are “no economics in operating two racetracks eight miles apart.”
Closing the track at Aqueduct and transferring the use of the facility to Genting Group, operators of Resorts World Casino, might help to fund an overhaul at Belmont. But the move would have a ripple effect through the state’s racing industry, possibly leading to the elimination of thousands of jobs.
Violette said the industry that has a $4.3 billion annual impact on the state and employs more than 32,000 people would stand to lose upward of 7,000 jobs if Aqueduct was to close without a replacement for the winter racing that occurs there. Absent a massive, possibly $1 billion overhaul, he said the track at Belmont is incapable of hosting winter racing.
“When you’re talking about major impacts in changing seasons and potentially eliminating a whole season, you’re talking about a dramatic impact on the workforce, the breeding industry and the racing industry,” he said. “The sport as we know it now would not survive.”
Connors, who is co-chair of the state Racing Fan Advisory Council, said NYRA’s reorganization also has to take into consideration the fan experience at its tracks. He said the troubles he experienced firsthand during the Belmont Stakes — a day attended by more than 102,000 paid fans — were ones that can’t be repeated.
“[Belmont Stakes is] the one day of the year you can introduce fans to the sport of horse racing,” he said. “NYRA should go above and beyond the call of duty on that day.”
Connors acknowledged Kay is trying to arrange a meeting with the council, as requested when it released a report in July. He suggested, however, that members of the reorganization board sit with the general public during some of the “big-day” events NYRA is trying to create so they can gauge the experience.
“It’s not to be critical,” he said of the report. “It’s to make sure the people who are in charge of racing in New York are aware of the experience.”