Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Beware the Invasion of the Track Snatchers
LOS ANGELES, July 13, 2013--In his recent redirection of attention, Vic Zast focused on the planned consolidation and privatization of racing in New York state: "There’s a franchise to sell … the media should ask questions, e.g. was Kay’s appointment impacted by New York’s very public decision to replace NYRA with a private operator in three years?
… If [Kay’s] bonus provides standards connected to maximize an end result when time rolls around to get Frank Stronach or Churchill Downs to step in – watch how quickly the tracks get a facelift."
This is a good time to recall that the last time those two titans tried to "step in," slots revenue was still the primary attraction for would-be track operators. Churchill Downs Inc. and the Stronach Group allegedly were represented by a group called "Friends of New York Racing" (FONYR), which later morphed into a bidding entity called "Empire Racing Associates."
That organization had the blessing of the powerful former State Senator Joseph Bruno, now a convicted felon. Once it was clear that the anti-NYRA confederation was not going to succeed, CDI and Magna backed away.
Some think that Stronach lost any chance of acquiring Saratoga following his appearance before the State’s "Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing" early in 2006, and that any attempt on his part to do so would be futile. At the time, Stronach advocated separating racing from slot franchise bidding. Actually, that’s exactly what New York State wound up doing.
Any protection for Saratoga from Mr. Stronach’s vision might lie in strong and sensible historical landmark safeguards. But will the present Governor and legislature step up and create them? And who will enforce this as time marches on? Wouldn’t the master of bankruptcy manipulation likely find ways around it anyway?
If procurement procedures such as those policed by NYRA watchdogs fulfill their promise of fairness and neutrality, how can a court-savvy owner of several successful corporations including racetracks be denied ownership of an entity he seems eminently qualified to operate?
As for Saratoga, which belongs to the sport as much as it does New York racing, there’s more than just the physical plant and ambiance to consider. Will the focus be on improving the racing product or increasing the venue’s luxury accommodations? Will high takeout rates continue to punish non-professionals while masking rebates that reward high-volume professional? Will exotic wager minimums be reduced to allow all customers to compete on a level playing field?
As for CDI, their attitude toward Florida horsemen is now on display for all of New York to see, as is the chilling result of their willingness to sell Hollywood Park to a land developer and the emasculation of the Illinois Derby. The success of their only non-slots property is solely due to Kentucky Derby weekend.
And what does the current free-for-all between South Florida’s two formidable rivals say about the wisdom of having either company operate racetracks in New York, anyway?
If and when the properties put up for grabs again, the current franchise operator likely will be one of the bidders. Kay just told the Daily News that he ’… will rely on the expertise of his own team of employees, who are well-versed in the sport. "There’s already a great team here," he said. "But I’m going to bring in a variety of talented people and promote and encourage the talented people we have… somebody with that racing experience very well may be one of those people."’
Under the present legal structure, the question becomes can this group legally form a private company? Despite the obvious déjà vu of it all, what else could successfully motivate such "talented" people to increase attendance and handle, extending their careers in the process?
It seems that in the absence of gaming’s involvement, there will have to be a partnering of racing stakeholders. Wouldn’t it be great if that entity finally included horseplayers, at least as stockholders. Can you conjure up a horseplayer who represents bettors sitting on the new NYRA board?
Let’s face it. New York’s racing elite became obsolete when they permitted their Sport of Kings to become the Gambol of Governors. Now the pastime that still can’t even coordinate post times is in danger of becoming more remote, strictly recreation for retirees and rest home residents that can hardly remember when racing was run rationally.