Thursday, December 13, 2012


Chairman Skorton and the New NYRA Board: Perfect Pitch


NEW YORK, 12.12.12-- "I really do not know much about horse racing." That quote from David Skorton the day before the President of Cornell University was officially elected Chairman of the Board at the new New York Racing Association raised plenty of eyebrows in the racing community for obvious reasons.

But hasn’t that always been the common wisdom; that the people who run the Thoroughbred industry don’t know enough about how to manage the business they’re in? Is racing even a sport, or is it strictly a betting vehicle meant to sustain itself while simultaneously filling the coffers of state government?

Everywhere in this country, especially here, New York was universally regarded as the nation’s capital of American Thoroughbred racing. But much has happened to and in the gambling business in the last 55 years. No one thinks that these are the good old days.

It was against this backdrop that Skorton was introduced to not only the racing world but to anyone with an interest in Thursday’s NYRA Board of Directors meeting in Manhattan, held in open forum and webcast via the world wide web on the NYRA’s own website. The association’s founders never could have envisioned anything like this.

When NYRA was conceived 55 years ago, Thoroughbred racing was the Sport of Kings and the moneyed class. Back in the day, the only lottery anyone talked about was the Irish Sweepstakes, betting off-track was still 20 years away, casinos only could be found in the Nevada desert or Monte Carlo.

And the NFL, the current 2000-pound entertainment and wagering gorilla, was nowhere near becoming a national pastime that would supplant baseball, where it says “no betting allowed” in every locker room.

Today, no one waits for a horse-drawn cart to deliver ice or sharpen kitchen utensils and now an entire country awaits the result of a national Powerball lottery--especially when there’s a carryover, just like in racing--nine of every 10 dollars are bet away from the track and there are mom and pop casinos on virtually every street corner in states that permit it and more money is bet illegally on football than is wagered legally on horse racing. The new normal seems to be anything but.

While it might help, it’s unnecessary for Skorton to know anything about horse racing to fix what’s wrong with the racing business in New York. Admittedly, he knows nothing about race horses but doesn’t that beg a question? Why is an industry that’s been run by experts in New York and everywhere for so long falling from favor so precipitously?

Skorton does not get paid to find the answer to all these mysteries, only to come up with practical business solutions for a local agribusiness that survives by riding the backs of American Thoroughbred racehorses--healthy ones--animals that can’t refuse to take an aspirin even if it wanted to. Gov. Andrew Cuomo thinks he was the right man for the job. And he just may be right.

Handicapping qualifications notwithstanding, who would be more qualified than the President of Cornell University, an academician who enlisted Michael Kotlikoff, Dean of Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, as a special advisor to provide a knowing set of eyes to see that a new, shorter version of the NYRA Mission statement that includes the welfare of the animal in the front row stays the course.

At the Board meeting, it was suggested the mission should be “meeting the highest standards of racing and horse safety,” which is what it was in the glory days. Skorton then said that the statement wasn’t a notion he wanted to ram through and asked for feedback. At that point, a board member was heard to say “perfect.” And it was, an appropriately short and correct response to an appropriately short and correct idea. Standards matter.

Even amid server interruptions, the web coverage provided more than was ever previously witnessed at a NYRA Board meeting in about 67 years. One sensed a spirit of cooperation free of ego and acrimony, as if the newness of transparency would provide a light to lead the troubled organization out of the wilderness and on a path to a brighter future for New York racing, the animals, and, by extension, the Empire State. Alas, political theater at its finest.

Skorton, who said he was honored by Cuomo’s suggestion that he head the Board, strongly suggested that NYRA make its third-quarter receipts available to the press, a sharp right angle from the secretive manner the association most often conducted itself in the past. When business is conducted according to the State Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law, good things can happen.

Other agenda items were approved such as prohibiting NYRA officers from making political contributions and even making a bet. The same applies to horsemen's groups but Board members may continue doing both. At first, the prohibition of wagering seemed a bit overwrought until Skorton explained that NYRA officers represent the state which is charged to serve the public. He hinted that betting could be a distraction.

Transparency and accountability together might take some getting used to.

Apropos, too, is the idea that the new NYRA should no longer do business as a “not for profit” institution but rather as a public benefit corporation, at least for three years when, as promised by Gov. Cuomo, NYRA becomes eligible for privatization. New York racing will need those three years. There’s much to be accomplished before profit again can incentivize good racetrack management.

The issues discussed were both quantitative and qualitative: How to restore New York racing to preeminence instead of being “somewhere in the middle,” according to a board member who added that an infrastructure needed to be built in support of the racing product sooner than later. “We have this money, let’s use it well.”

After having very little to smile about following the takeout scandal, Thursday’s board meeting was a promising start, a new beginning with hope that the positive energy, spirit, and cooperation on display Thursday will not lose momentum. The Board knows it must be ready for the next legislative session. There’s no time to waste in what promises to be a long, difficult road.

So far, I’m inclined to bet that Mr. Skorton and friends are capable of getting the job done. It’s day one at the new NYRA and everyone starts out even.

Written by John Pricci

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