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Friday, 17 June 2016 09:19
NYRA Turf War!
SARATOGA SPRINGS — In the waning hours of the New York State Legislature’s final week of session, the Senate and the Assembly both passed bipartisan legislation led by Senator Kathy Marchione and Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner that would re-privatize The New York Racing Association (NYRA). It has received wide approval from the racing industry, including the NYRA board, as well as numerous state and local elected officials, businesses, racing fans and advocates. Governor Andrew Cuomo has threatened to veto it. He put forth his own privatization proposal that would keep NYRA’s reins within his influence through the board selection process, including his choice of NYRA chair for the first three years, and transfer Video Lottery Terminal money away from racing. The Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing, a committee of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, held a press conference on Wednesday, June 15 at the Embassy Suites Hotel, 86 Congress Street, to update the media and public with the status, plans and commentary on the legislation that affects racing, breeding, jobs, tourism and local business, as well as the future of Saratoga Race Course and the economy of the Upstate NY region. Tom Durkin, former Announcer, New York Racing and NBC Television, emceed the press conference, which included Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus among its speakers, as well as John Hendrickson of Marylou Whitney Stables; Cindy Hollowood, Operator/General Manager, Holiday Inn and past chair, NYS Hospitality and Tourism Association; Jack Knowlton, Managing Partner, Sackatoga Stables; Marianne Barker, Owner of Impressions of Saratoga; track employees and many others. The room was crowded with fans and advocates holding signs that read “Whoa, Cuomo!” in protest of the governor’s proposal for re-privatization. According to Shimkus, the bipartisan re-privatization legislation that passed both houses “would make NYRA a not for profit corporation that is very close and in line with what we want and what the NYRA board of directors approved back in April.” He said Cuomo’s version is drastically different. “First, the governor is looking beyond setting up a board. He’s looking to transfer money away from racing. There was a franchise agreement, and he’s looking to unilaterally change the payment terms and put that money away from racing and into the education budget.” The governor’s proposal would cap VLT payments at $46 million, $16 million of which could only be used for capital projects at the Saratoga racetrack. Any funds beyond the $46 million would be directed to the state lottery, which is set for its overages to be funneled into the state education budget. Currently, lottery monies supplant rather than supplement the education budget, which provides the state with the ability to direct funds it would have spent on education into some other pot. Presumably, the same would apply with these redirected VLT funds. Hendrickson has likened this to missing mortgage payments, as the VLT monies were part of a contract to NYRA in exchange for turning the titles of a billion dollars worth of its lands over to the state. “You can’t back out of paying your mortgage to a bank,” Hendrickson said. “This is the same thing. There’s no question this money is due to NYRA. There shouldn’t be any cap until the money is paid. You’re basically saying, if we don’t have this money, we’ll have to balance the budget on the backs of our fans.” “Secondly,” continued Shimkus regarding Cuomo’s proposal, “it has a number of performance standards that the new NYRA board would have to meet – largely related to financial practices and financial operations – and if they don’t meet those standards, than the Franchise Oversight Board can withhold funds or step in to control operations going forward.” Given NYRA’s history that led to the state takeover, the governor’s proposal is not surprising, but Shimkus said the advocates find the controls excessive, and not taking into account the progress NYRA has made over the last four years. “There is a new management team in place,” he said. “They have had to be very transparent and adopted a wide range of new practices that we think are working. And, based on their performance over the last two years, they’ve accomplished what the governor set out to accomplish when he took over racing four years ago. The promise that he made at the time – a promise that was included in the law – was, provided those things happened, NYS would get out of running horse racing.” Several advocates agree, including Concerned Citizens for Racing Chair Maureen Lewi, Shimkus, and Hendrickson, that the NYS government is not known for being agile, flexible and forward-thinking, which a new NYRA board will need to be successful in the increasingly competitive racing industry. Now that the state will have casinos, the competition is even tougher than before. “There is not another track in the country that is run by the state government,” said Shimkus. “Not one.” According to Shimkus, the passing of the bipartisan bill sends a positive message to the racing industry that NYS is committed to a regional and responsible way of running a year round, successful thoroughbred racing operation. Now everyone is waiting to see what the governor will do. Exercise rider Heather Coots, one of the many backstretch workers who are also impacted by the re-privatization struggles, said at the press conference, “I can’t believe we’re having this discussion, it’s madness. Governor Cuomo, you need to man up and keep your promise.”