Sep 5, 2007

Who'dathunk? It's NYRA

In a comeback story rivaling the Rocky Balboa saga, Governor Spitzer announced that he has worked out a memo of understanding with the New York Racing Association that would extend that group's franchise to operate the three major horse racing tracks in the Empire State.

Such a notion would have been inconceivable two years ago; or even one year ago, for that matter. After being rocked by internal scandals (albeit for relatively minor offenses such as shaky teller accounting), general mismanagement and a questioning of whether a nonprofit business model was the best option for the sport (or better yet: businesss) of thoroughbred racing, NYRA's prospects looked bleak as a slew of racing industry contendors swooped in like birds of prey circling a dead woodchuck on the Northway.

But several things happened between then and now, including a new management group reporting for duty under the watchful eyes of court-mandated watchdogs to clean house. At the same time, the contending groups became a field of moving targets, with each week bringing a new collaboration announcement or some dirty laundry being uncovered. Maybe Magna Corporation would ruin Saratoga the same way it ruined Gulfstream Park, some knowing minds began wondering.

NYRA's biggest ace in the hole was its threat to basically shut down racing statewide by claiming ownership of the actual racing faciltiies. In other words, "if you dont give us what we want, we're locking the front gates and hiding the keys" became it's chief strategy. It argued that since it's been paying property taxes on Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct, it therefore must own them. NYS said 'phooey,' and most legal scholars agreed.

But, regardless of who's right, Mr Spitzer knows -- better than anyone -- that the issue could throw a three-year monkey wrench called litigation into the festivities. True to form, the Governor took a long hard look at the landscape and decided that it wasn't worth that legal hassle and decided that NYRA could be made to work -- as could the nonprofit model.

This deal isn't 100% done, however. Senator Bruno is already making noise about not being pleased and is promising to be his usual obstructionist self. But Uncle Joe might better be careful on this one: NYRA was always the popular choice amnong the local Capital Region crowd and he might not have all the votes needed to stop this one from going through.

Without getting in to an opinion of whether NYRA was the right choice or the wrong choice, let this be said: the political leadership of Saratoga Springs didn't come out of it looking real good. Sure, most of them jumped on the NYRA bandwagon at the end, but the local NYRA support is strictly a result of greedy, short-term self-interest. "Saratoga Race Course rocks, and is making us all happy, so why fix it if it ain't broke?" So the Spa City thinking goes, at least.

What most of them don't understand, however, is the big-picture issue of a sport/industry in major trouble. While the Saratoga meet is a success, it is one of only three exceptions to the rule (along with DelMar and Keeneland) among dozens more that are empty shells of what this sport used to be--which was one at the forefront of the American psyche a half a century ago. Whereas Belmont used to draw 40,000 sports-minded citizens on any given Saturday, they are hard pressed to attract 4,000 hard core gegenerates today. Would a corporate CEO have his contract renewed after that kind of report card?

So, when the local politicains chimed -- in unison -- that the three New York tracks should not --under absolutely ANY circumstances -- be broken up and awarded to different operators at each one, it simply highlights their ignornace of the big picture. Running a combination race track/ casino/ real estate development business in metro NYC is a different project than running a country fair meet in upstate New York. Good business principles dictate that you realize such, and treat them as separate businesses with properly skilled management being dedicated to each one.

This is the type of thinking that the local set seems incapable of engaging in on this issue. As well as on most issues.

It looks like horse racing in New York is still NYRA's game. Let's just hope that the Big Scare they've been given over the past couple of years will do some good. Horse racing is just too important to screw up.

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