Please say that the proposal to shutter and sell off Aqueduct Racetrack and divide the franchise holders entrusted to run New York racing into disparate groups is a trial balloon. Please say that it was launched to gauge reaction from everyone tethered to the industry and to get a measure of how it would all play out politically because in New York the game always has been to satisfy as many groups as possible. Please say that you won’t do what your predecessors have done; play downstate against upstate, let the chips fall, and follow the prevailing wind.
If we know one thing in New York it’s this: When we try to please everyone, we please no one. And please say that you lofted this balloon because the advisers you entrusted to advise are not. Obviously, you must rely on input from the state budget office, the Empire State Development Corporation and the State Racing and Wagering Board.
I claim no expertise in two of these areas. Fortunately, I don’t need a job at the moment. But I know something about how racing and wagering works. Did you know that for years New York officials have been asking the SRWB to expand superfecta wagering because by not doing so the New York tracks remain at a competitive disadvantage in the simulcast marketplace and that the windfall payoffs from the wager are popular with the customers and keep them liquid longer? No?
Well, permit me to be of service. The SRWB is supposed to act in the best interests of all the state’s citizens but historically has made decisions based on political expediency rather than those based on sound business practices. The average horseplayer could give you better advice. But I digress.
The franchise issue is far more complex, of course. The stakes are extremely high. Racing is defined as a niche sport--if niche means total U.S. handle of $15 billion annually. The New York signal is the industry’s simulcast leader and drives handle annually, not seasonally. Simulcasting makes up 85 percent of total handle and that percentage grows every day. The international market is set to explode, so the product matters. To segment local racing would be to weaken the continuity of the product dramatically. While other venues grow the sport via slots revenue, New York would lose market share.
Racing is a niche if you consider that $2.4 billion generated by New York’s agribusiness and a community that accounts for 40,000 jobs is an industry of no consequence. Racing without a healthy New York would be like major league baseball without the Yankees, the NFL without the Giants, the NHL without the Rangers and NBA without the Knicks. History and cultural fabric matter, too.
So don’t do this, Mr. Spitzer, not if you really care about the working men and women who make a living in New York’s horse business. Don’t jeopardize the stature of New York racing. Yes, competition is healthy. It’s what had made this country great. But not when it works at cross purposes. We’ve already seen what happens, for instance, when on-track and off-track interests compete for the same customers.
Neighboring states with VLTs already are beating our brains in. We have lost major portions of the state’s horse population to other states and will continue to lose them every day we delay a decision on the franchise. And if you haven’t heard that the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby will have a negative impact on this year’s Travers Stakes, the Midsummer jewel of the Saratoga meet, you haven’t been getting relevant advice.
A large part of the on-track versus off-track problem has been the creation of senseless competition and duplication. Do you realize that downstate tracks share the same pertinent staff with Saratoga and much of the parimutuel and track maintenance equipment, too? Do you know that Saratoga is the world’s best race meet because the best of the downstate racing stock, with no live racing there, ship north for six weeks every summer? That without that kind of quality, the world’s best race meet ceases to exist as such?
Racetracks, like people, are living organisms. They get tired. Do you realize that if Aqueduct is sold you would need a second dirt surface at Belmont Park, one suitable for winter racing? Even if Polytrack were installed, it wasn’t meant for 46 consecutive weeks of operation. And not all artificial tracks are create equal. There have been problems with extremes in temperatures, hot and cold. Even Polytrack creator Martin Collins has admitted as much.
For Belmont to work well 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 extremely wide course to allow for the movement of the temporary rails to preserve the course for the safety for horses and jockeys, and a year-round training track.
Of course, there already is a separate training track at Belmont. But I was thinking of the 550 head currently stabled at Aqueduct. Where would they train? Where would they live? Would they leave New York altogether? What about the trainers and grooms and exercise riders and hot walkers and veterinarians and feed company personnel and track kitchen employees and seasonal employees? Where do they go? Where would they live?
If perhaps you were thinking about 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 track environs was already needed to insure a quality product.
This year, Saratoga has lost much of its off-season horse population because trainers of “good-horse” stables, the ones that come to New York from Kentucky, Florida and California for its cache, have stayed behind because the artificial tracks there are safer and more consistent for training.
Actually, the quicker an artificial surface is installed at Oklahoma the better. Without one that portion of the Saratoga boarding and training experience will become irrelevant as an eight-month facility. Would downstate franchisees be prepared to prop up Saratoga instead of the other way around?
I’ll allow your appointed staffers to advise you on just how disparate franchise holders would revenue share, and on real estate ownership, and on intellectual property matters. As Virgil Sollozzo once admitted, I’m not that clever. But I was wondering how all those workers who barely can afford to live in Queens will pay rent in Nassau County; how all the horsemen without a “big horse” in their barn can continue paying the help, feed their own families, and have enough leftover to pay state and local taxes. Unlike W. C. Fields, they may decide they’d rather be in Philadelphia.
So, please, Governor, take these things into consideration. I know you want to find as much new revenue as possible, much of it 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 that was promised long ago. This is not a time for trail balloons, sir, only decisive action. Why not simply go back to the RFPs already provided and make a decision, before a dire situation becomes worse than it already is.
John R. Pricci