News of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to return the New York Racing Association to private control came about 30 minutes into Tuesday’s state Senate hearing to consider NYRA’s future — a meeting in which horse-racing stakeholders and state lawmakers advocated for NYRA’s release from state control.
But lawmakers and others who spoke at the Senate’s Committee on Racing, Gaming and Wagering hearing didn’t jump out of their seats; instead, they're responding with caution.
“I don’t know all of the details, but as we’re scanning quickly, it looks like we’re going in the right direction,” said committee Chairman Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope. “But again, we have to wait until the dust settles.”
Caution may have been warranted after last June when, after NYRA was nearly returned to private nonprofit control, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Assembly and Senate leaders extended the state’s oversight for a fifth year.
“What was Ronald Reagan’s quote? ‘Trust but verify?’” said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, after speaking at the hearing. “So we’re going to want to see the details; we’re going to want to see the language.”
Shimkus said he would only be satisfied if the plan, which was not made publicly available Tuesday, included the re-privatization of NYRA with key stakeholders represented, and if it honored an agreement from 2008 that granted a specific percentage of VLT revenues from Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens to the horse-racing industry.
“All of the stakeholders — public sector, private sector, the stakeholders that we heard from in Albany today, community leaders in places like Saratoga — you need to all be in the room where it happens,” Shimkus testified.
Committee member Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, also said she needed more details of Cuomo’s plan to re-privatize before she could comment. Her chief of staff, Joshua Fitzpatrick, said she and Bonacic went straight to a luncheon at the governor’s mansion where Cuomo was briefing Republican senators on his budget proposal for 2016-2017, but did not make it in time to learn more about his plan for NYRA.
“That part had already been discussed,” Fitzpatrick said. “The senator has nothing in writing.”
Supporters of privatizing NYRA, including Marchione and several speakers from Saratoga Springs — home to Saratoga Race Course — said the state’s control is impeding long-term plans and track upgrades.
“This perpetual state of limbo for NYRA isn’t serving any practical purpose; in fact, it’s doing real harm,” Marchione said. “The continued delay comes at a price, and the cost to our racing industry and economy could exceed tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.”
Joe McMahon, of McMahon Thoroughbreds of Saratoga, praised the state’s racing facilities and horse-breeding programs. He said horse sales have risen “precipitously” in New York state over the past five years, “but there is something holding the industry back.”
“There are potential investors, breeders and owners from around the country who are ready to invest large sums of money in New York state, but there is a lingering concern that politics is striking what is becoming a vibrant industry for out state,” he said.
Shimkus said the hearing put the topic of NYRA’s privatization, which was not raised during the governor’s recent State of the State addresses, “back on the public agenda.”
“We wanted to make sure that this issue was on the agenda now, not at the last minute or later on in the year,” he said.
Also speaking were Cynthia Hollowood, general manager of the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs and a Saratoga Race Course Community Advisory Board member; New York Thoroughbred Breeders Executive Director Jeffrey Cannizzo; and Richard Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.