08/26/2012 6:15PM

Beyer: Cuomo's unwanted takeover


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — This is the Saratoga season that should have elated everyone in the racing industry.

The track looks as grand as ever; the crowds are large and enthusiastic; the quality of the stakes competition is unmatched in the United States. And now, after a decade of hopes and delays, revenue from slot machines downstate at Aqueduct is infusing the sport, pushing prize money to unprecedented levels. Maidens at Saratoga are competing for purses as high as $85,000. The changed economics could revitalize the sport by encouraging more owners to buy and breed thoroughbreds.

Yet at Saratoga this summer you will hear little optimistic talk about the future — not when the equivalent of a nuclear bomb is about to drop. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is set to take control of the New York Racing Association by reconstituting its board of directors and packing it with political appointees. The New York Post’s statehouse correspondent Fredric Dicker — whose sources are considered authoritative — wrote that Cuomo would fire NYRA’s CEO Ellen McClain “as soon as the meet ends on Sept. 3.” Almost everyone expects that Cuomo will take for the state some or all of the slot-machine revenue that has been earmarked for horse racing.

People who don’t follow racing closely, and know about NYRA what they read in the New York newspapers, might think that any change would be an improvement. For years, NYRA has been a whipping boy for politicians and the press, portrayed as incompetent and corrupt. But the supposed misdeeds of the organization were regularly overblown, and much of the hostility toward NYRA was driven by factors other than its record. Plenty of people in New York disliked the fact that the upper crust of the horsey set, the wealthy dynasties like the Phippses and the Vanderbilts, dominated NYRA and exerted so much control over New York racing. Former governor Mario Cuomo, father of Andrew, had a visceral dislike of the bluebloods.

The criticism about the rule of the bluebloods had some foundation. I stopped going to Saratoga in the late 1990s because the track had become customer-unfriendly and the people running it appeared not to notice or care. The sport appeared to be exist mostly for the benefit of wealthy owners. But after Charlie Hayward was named president and CEO in 2004, NYRA conducted its operations much more skillfully than the nation’s other major owners of racetracks, Frank Stronach and Churchill Downs, Inc.

NYRA operates the most successful race meeting in America, though its critics will rarely give it credit for that achievement. At Saratoga it has managed to accommodate big crowds while retaining the charm that makes the Spa a must-see destination for racing fans throughout the country.

NYRA did things that the politicians would never notice but that core fans recognized and appreciated: Its in-house television presentation is the most informative in the industry. Its Web site is packed with useful information. It changed the rules governing the Pick Six and Pick Four to protect bettors when races were shifted from turf to dirt.

And then NYRA made the mistake that triggered a cataclysm. With the expiration of a state law, the takeout from certain wagers in New York was supposed to be reduced from 26 percent to 25 percent, but nobody in NYRA (nor any of the tracks’ state overseers) spotted the error until bettors had been short-changed by $8.5 million. This surely wasn’t deliberate — most of the money went not to NYRA but to the various outlets around the country that handle wager on New York races.

But the event confirmed, to its long-time critics, what a corrupt and incompetent entity NYRA was, and it turned into a full-fledged, headline-making scandal. NYRA’s board fired Hayward and general counsel Patrick Kehoe, perhaps hoping that these sacrifices would appease the governor.

He was not appeased; this was Cuomo’s opportunity to execute a coup. The governor is a staunch supporter of the casino industry, which can generate significant revenue for the state, not to mention large political contributions. Because of the law giving racetracks a subsidy from slot-machine funds, horse racing siphons away money that politicians want for their own aims. Cuomo sought to take control by changing the composition of the NYRA board, reducing it to 17 members, eight of whom will be appointed by the governor and two each by the Senate and Assembly.

Blogger Tom Noonan (www.tenoonan.com), an attorney and small-scale horse owner, has written more incisively about the NYRA situation than almost anyone in the mainstream media, and he declared that the governor and his staff “engineered a coup . . . [and engaged] in . . . assaults on the integrity and character of NYRA Board members without citing any evidence justifying the attacks.”

Without Hayward to fight back, NYRA quickly folded under Cuomo’s pressure. The New York Post editorial page cheered: “The long-disgraced NewYork Racing Association is about to be put out of business.” And it applauded the governor for “tackling a culture that has been a breeding ground for corruption.”

The suggestion that New York politicians will clean up horse racing corruption ought to sound like a joke to anyone familiar with the state’s history. When off-track betting in the state was legalized in the 1970s and placed under the control of various regional political entities, it became a cesspool of political patronage and mismanagement. New York City Off-Track Betting accomplished the feat of going broke running a business in which losing money was almost impossible. When the state legislature passed the law authorizing a casino at Aqueduct, the process of awarding the franchise took 10 years and was marred by so much influence-peddling that the Inspector General described it as “a veritable case study in dysfunctional and politically driven government.”

People involved in New York racing have ample reason to be worried about what will happen when the state takes control. And because New York is the center of the sport in the United States, the nation’s thoroughbred industry ought to be worried, too.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post

PETER More than 1 year ago
This is widespread. In Ontario Canada the Provincial Government is doing the same. These wack jobs think that depriving the industry of slots, will benefit them in another venue. They get lots of taxes from each bet. Fort Erie is going down and Woodbine is reverting to British racing to make up for a potential revenue loss. The bottom line, anything government touches turns to, you know what.
Den Despo More than 1 year ago
I believe Andy has it right and saying it like it is, The State legislature is licking their chops at the money projections for the Aqueduct casino. In my opinion they're taking a chapter from the Al Damato playbook,"How to revive NY Harness Racing". Does anyone remember Roosevelt Raceway? It wasn't always a shopping mall. The govenor forced the NYRA to forfeit Aqueduct land rights as one of the conditions for their new charter. Now he disbands the Board and soon will be doling out parcels of land to his cronies who would love to own land near the new full service Casino. A pay raise is small peanuts for this crew. DRF needs to stay on this like a fly on SH??.
Nancy More than 1 year ago
Anytime gov't gets involved in business at any level - it's doomed. I was so sorry to read this article.
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Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
Andy Beyer is a columnist, not a reporter. As a columnist he has spoken his mind about the negative effects on the game caused by trainers drugging their horses. He might have been the one who first penned the supertrainer title.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Along with 'White Maned Wizard'...
Bryan Waters More than 1 year ago
I would like to see DRF do some investigative reporting. Period. If not DRF, who?
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
Didn't Andy Beyer hide in the bushes down at Gulfstream many years ago trying to spy on a trainer who won a lot of races in a row. I remember the trainer's name. I am leaving it out because the incident brought much grief to this trainer (now deceased) and his family. Andy and the DRF took a lot criticism for this episode. Andy has talked very openly against supertrainers. He has named the names. Bryan, I am not disagreeing with you. It's just a couple of things I remember.
Bryan Waters More than 1 year ago
I don't connote hiding in bushes with investigative reporting, Sal. I connote hiding in bushes with more hidden crap that already goes on in racing. I don't actually really think DRF will ever do this; it has a vested interest in getting inside information to support the gambling side of the game. In other words, it is part of the problem; suggesting it become part of the solution, well, that has fallen on deaf ears for decades and will continue to do so as long as Mr. Crist is Publisher.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
'Supertrainers' - - - I guess you mean Baffert, as in the Buyer peice of 5/2/12.
mikey More than 1 year ago
That take's real reporter's with a pair.These guy's are puppet's told who to go after and who to leave alone.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
Lets leave the politics and personal views about gov out of this for a second and concentrate on the real issue.RACING IS BROKEN,when your own fan base does not believe in the honesty of the product you are dead period.so the solution is simple fix the fixing.run an honest operation insist on honesty from jockeys and trainers and punish those that break the rule,make an example of them.THE FACT IS NYRA AND THE RACING ESTABLISHMENT IN GENERAL HAVE DONE AN AWFUL JOB SO FAR.so something must change or the sport dies a slow and painfull death.10 years ago if you told me horseracing was about to be banned i would have been devastated today i could care less i dont think im alone.and that is the issue here the die hard fan base is fed up with the drugs and the cheating. personally i would like to see a federal task force investigate and arrest a couple of trainers and jockeys,but with worldwide betting into us pools and $240 000 winning pick 6 bets being placed from overseas hubs its hard to prove or investigate any suspicious betting paterns.but its obvious that the track stewards are not equiped to deal with these investigations and that their drug testing programmes are a miserable failure,so im for a drastic change any change is better than what we have.
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
Ray, as a player I have tried to understand both sides of the drug issue. As of now, I am confused. But, if there is a reason to prohibit raceday drugs it is for the reason you speak of: restoring the belief of honesty to the game.
Teri Tablack Popovich More than 1 year ago
Ray, agreed, racing is broken, but the fact that the sport is dying a slow painful death, as you so rightly put it, tears this racing fans heart apart. I have no answers, just hopes that in my time we won't see it gone forever. With all respect, this is one lifelong racing fan, since my Dad first took me to the track at age 4, that still cares deeply about the horses ,but doesn't know what will prevent it's demise.
bosco redondo More than 1 year ago
Most of the cheating that kills ordinary fans is in the workouts . Race day drugs do have an influence but where you really get robbed is in the mornings . Read Clocker Bobs online book { it`s free } and you will get the picture .
daveb More than 1 year ago
Cuomo takes over NYRA with his political cronies and access to the VLT money and guess who wants a pay raise ? The politicians of New York are crying the blues about their $75,000/yr salary and want it boosted to $100,000/yr. Not a big fan of NYRA the way it is; (recent Pic4 screw job because of the deadheat rule) but it will only get worse with Cuomo cronies running the show.
Raymond Hackinson More than 1 year ago
Cuomo will take all of the money from the casinos and use it for state purposes as well as for the politicians. There is no way horse racing will see a long range benefit from the revenue. Sooner, rather then later, the clubhouse stiill standing at Aqueduct will be razed and a hotel and larger casino will be built. There is no way a large amount of trainers with reasonably good stock are going to move their base of operations to NY The owners and trainers will stay where they are established and have their homes. NYRA is trying to do the right thing by getting new owners into the the game. If Cuomo pulls the strings out by cutting back on future revenue, no one is going to get involved
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Griffith Marton More than 1 year ago
Beyer has written many columns about "miracle" trainers who suddenly sprout 30% win rates. In his books he's written about the Mass. Fair circuit and named a vet in Kentucky who he believed was crooked.
mikey More than 1 year ago
The drf and TVG are worried that they will not get all the perk's we have to pay for.They must have chapped lip's from kissing butt's
Lenny Mamola More than 1 year ago
Goes to show you what has happened to the country, and how power can reduce men (and women) to nothing...And lose all respect for themselves
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
It also goes to show that many have been reduced to quoting mindless political talking points.