“Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.””--Michael Corleone
Just when I was prepared to write happy thoughts about a recent visit to Santa Anita, how I still prefer legit dirt tracks to synthetic surfaces, and all other things racing, a Bloodhorse.com story threw the New York franchise issue right back into my face.
I had given up commenting on the franchise dilemma, even if every SoCal racetracker I met asked what was going to happen in New York. My answer was that not even Governor Eliot Spitzer or Senator Joseph Bruno could riddle that, especially after Bruno proposed the creation of a racing and gaming super agency shaped from his own vision and likeness.
My considered position was that all involved parties; Democrats, Republicans and the New York Racing Association--given that its prosecution-deferred guilty plea made it a criminal entity--should find a diseased yak in their collective beds. After all, it was NYRA’s machinations that hijacked New York’s world class sport in the first place.
The history of the process of awarding of the franchise began in earnest when Gov. Spitzer agreed to extend the NYRA franchise 30 years, forgive their debts, give them more taxpayer money to get started, in exchange for the deeds to the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga properties. But that a separate entity would run the VLT gaming operations.
The State House of Representatives, under fellow Democratic leader Sheldon Silver said, let’s do it, with the proviso that Aqueduct would house the only VLT facility downstate, presumably so that Nassau County would not compete with Silver’s County of Queens for gaming revenue. He said the House would “oppose any further extension of gambling in New York State.” A moral pillar, obviously, is Mr. Silver.
As expected, Republican Senate Majority Leader Bruno let out with a resounding: Whoa back! Not on my watch you don’t. Instead, Bruno proposed the creation of a new super agency--11 political appointees including an overwhelming majority of Republicans--that would decide if and when the new franchisee could order those new paper clips, and from whom.
In short, there was the Spitzer solution: Make everything go away, but mostly NYRA’s problems. And Bruno’s response to the Spitzer plan: Drop dead.
Then there was the Bruno plan, an offer no one could accept, but far enough from the Spitzer proposal as to guarantee huge concessions when seats were filled at the bargaining table. Spitzer’s Response: Your mama.
And, of course, there was Silver’s plan, which doesn’t exist now and is unlikely to in the future, Unless, of course, his boys get a pay raise. Don’t laugh. That could be a part of a brand new franchise agreement that began circulating earlier this week, also including tax cuts and monies for construction projects. As if a multi-billion dollar industry weren’t enough of a concern.
Under this new compromise, it is proposed that three separate racing entities run each track; one franchise for Aqueduct, another for Belmont Park and a third for Saratoga, most likely the NYRA since it has stewarded the growth of a six-week race meet into a world wide destination venue.
And even if he’s unfamiliar with Northway Exit 14, not even Silver would trifle with Saratoga’s success.
Such a change could reverse the course of major racing in New York. The NYRA was created in 1955 to eliminate all the little fiefdoms that sprung up with the opportunity to make a buck. Back in the day, racing was the only legal action around. Tracks were always a loggerheads over dates, purses, stakes programs, and the competition to curry favor with the sport’s biggest and best outfits.
Under NYRA’s flag, New York racing became, on balance, the world’s best year-round circuit and host of this planet’s best extended race meet at Saratoga. But when you stiff the feds, the state, the horsemen, and your own pensioners, you open Pandora’s box and run the risk of closing the entry box. Which leads us to a sorry state of affairs, pun intended.
I have no bulls in this rodeo nor am I taking a position on the plan’s viability. But this three-tier approach doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We all know the knocks; intramural competition for the same equine and human populations, no stakes schedule flexibility, logistical and stabling issues, disparate purse levels, etc., etc. But, keeping an open mind, this might be the only damn plan that could work in this politically charged, dishonest environment. To wit:
In the main, Aqueduct exists in a vacuum. Like it or not, it’s the winter-racing tail that wags this dog, operating for four of seven months from December through March. This period is the reason God invented Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Fair Grounds. (Can’t trust Hot Springs until April, either).
When quality New York racing is discussed, seldom is Aqueduct included in the same conversation with Belmont Park and Saratoga.
Belmont and Saratoga need each other. Belmont spring transitions from last stop on the Triple Crown trail to Saratoga preview. The two-year-olds begin to debut, the Dwyer helps produce a second-season Travers three-year-old, and grass racing hits its full turf stride. Saratoga is, well, Saratoga, standing alone until it transitions into the Belmont Fall Grade 1 prep season.
The stalls issue is resolvable between the tracks, their racing departments and local horsemen. It can be delineated by the quality of the meet and the kind of horses needed to put on the different shows. Dates and purses can be legislated into racing law. There should be enough VLT purse money to go around for all three, including Saratoga. There still can be a common pool of employees from which to draw, but also a demarcation point for seasonal needs and economic realities. Think of it: One suit, three pockets.
Of course, how this or any plan can happen before the December 31 deadline is a huge unknown. Right now, the favorite is that a resolution will not be found in time. And it’s off to bankruptcy court we go. That’s another crapshoot but with NYRA ruling a slight favorite.
The skinny is that Spitzer is moving off his plan and closer to a compromise. Bruno thinks it’s 50-50 that a deal can be struck by the end of the month, leaving December to flesh out the details. Silver? Well, just make it worth his while and he’ll pack the car and drive back up the Thruway.
But to compromise in good faith to emerge with a workable resolution is fraught with a dilemma. It’s like the old joke about a man who learns that, finally, tonight’s the night. Then he finds out he can make love to either Roseanne Barr or Rosie O’Donnell.
In order to settle the franchise issue, I hope that all involved parties would heed the advise of the fictional Lou Mannheim to Bud Fox in the movie, “Wall Street.” “Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that's what keeps him out of the abyss.”