Iím a little confused about this new plan to cut the racing baby in half. I fear I am not alone. Perhaps youíre a little unsure yourself. Am I wrong in assuming that the latest trial balloon launched to gauge the reaction of parties tethered to New York racing hasnít worked because, instead of satisfying as many groups as possible, it served to unite those with objections?
As stated in our last letter, we know this about New York politics: When we try to please everyone we please no one. And now, with the Legislature in recess, weíve run out of racetrack. Whatever the solution, itís odds-on it wonít happen by the time the current franchise expires. While you ponder the solution, hereís some background you might find helpful.
Racing is a niche sport--if niche is defined by total annual U.S. handle of $15 billion. New York racing is responsible for $2.7 billion of that handle, making the product the industryís leader. Simulcasting comprises 85 percent of the $15-billion, and the percentage grows every day. The international market is ready to explode.
So the product matters. It cannot be overstated that a sufficient amount of VLT revenue must be earmarked for purses and capital improvements; not simply to maintain but to solidify New Yorkís preeminent position.
Racing is a niche in New York only if you consider the stateís huge agri-business and 40,000 jobs to be of little or no consequence. But cultural fabric matters, too. Reiterating, New York without its industry-leading thoroughbred sport would be like major league baseball without the Yankees, the NFL without the Giants, the NHL without the Rangers and the NBA without the Knicks.
What confuses me is that your latest proposal has Aqueduct remaining as a VLT-facility-only with the remaining land sold off to satisfy NYRAís debt. There would be no VLTs for Belmont Park. Originally you proposed to shut Aqueduct, sell all the land, and build an entertainment destination with VLTs at Belmont. If I were so inclined, Iíd rather drive or ride the Long Island Railroad to Belmont than take the A train to Aqueduct. But I prefer a little thinking with my gaming; thatís just me.
As far as who would run the gaming-only operation, does this mean that the Excelsior group must compete all over again with the Empire and Capital Play organizations? That doesnít seem right but itís your call.
Now you realize that Empire gets its strength from out of state organizations that recently banded together in an attempt to corner the betting-platform market, right? Why would Churchill Downs and Magna suddenly turn altruistic when it comes to doing whatís best for New York?
Capital Play? They conduct themselves as representing the best elements of Australian racing. Do your people realize theyíre little more than a betting platform that happens to be based in Australia?
Beyond equitable revenue sharing between the casino and racing interests that would guarantee not only racingís survival but its stature going forward, none of your proposals address the off-track betting situation.
Weíve all seen what happens when on-track and off-track interests work at cross purposes. Fixing New York racing must include the resolution of a system that creates senseless competition through duplication. There must be a way to fix this and assure the stateís counties their cut.
Your own past performances indicate that you believe in reforming troubled industries through changes in operational procedures and management or by rewriting bylaws and reconstituting boards. Clearly, the NYRA board as presently constructed could use some house-cleaning.
On their watch, NYRAís former president was allowed to resign before ďthe culture of corruptionĒ investigation embarrassed him, or worse, and heís currently receiving $7,000 a month in benefits. His successor subsequently was sent packing with $500,000 in his kick.
All this while two mid-level executives were scapegoated and sent to jail and two other loyal employees had their reputations permanently tarnished and still remain in legal limbo, denied their right to a swift and speedy trial. To paraphrase the fictional Willy Cicci, the family has a lot of buffers, governor.
But please be careful not to overload the board with appointments who know little or nothing of racing, i.e., anyone not in the racing business in this state.
If Aqueduct were eliminated, many changes would be needed for Belmont to work as a stand-alone downstate facility. You would need five different surfaces over which to race and train; a spring/summer/fall surface, a winterized track, two turf courses (or two enlarged into one very wide course) and a year-round training track. And thatís before the heating bill gets paid.
Of course, there exists a separate training track at Belmont. But I was thinking of the 550 head now stabled at Aqueduct. Where would they train, or live? If perhaps you or your advisers were thinking of Saratoga as a possible solution, think again. With burgeoning growth of the town and region comes a growing dearth of affordable housing. The additional stall space provided by the Oklahoma training facility is already in use to maintain quality.
This year, however, Saratoga lost much of its off-season horse population because trainers of ďgood-horseĒ stables from Kentucky and California that come to New York for its cache have remained behind because the artificial surfaces there are safer and more consistent for training. The quicker an artificial surface is installed at Oklahoma, the better. Without it, the Saratoga boarding experience eventually will become irrelevant as an eight-month facility.
Iíll allow your appointed staffers to advise you on how disparate franchise holders, one for gaming and one for racing, would share revenue. Safeguards for racingís continued growth must be put in place. One need only visit the backstretch of the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway to see what happens when VLT operators continue to invest in their gaming facilities while ignoring the racetrack that allowed them to operate in the first place. The stalls are a disgrace.
So, please, Governor, take these things into account. I know you want to find as much new revenue as possible, preferably upfront. You owe that to all New Yorkers. But a major industry and prominent taxpayer that provides jobs and priceless prestige has been waiting five years for help. If dividing the baby is what it takes, do it. In a perfect world reasonable people could make it work.
John R. Pricci