12/07/2012 4:14PM

Crist: Catskill oversteps its boundaries with New York OTB

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Last June 21, as New York lawmakers hurried toward a summer recess, both houses of the state legislature passed a bill that would give the Catskill Regional Offtrack Betting Corporation the right to operate OTB parlors in New York City.

Last Wednesday, more than five months later, the bill landed on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk. Even if Cuomo does the right thing and vetoes rather than signs it, the fact that such a preposterous piece of legislation has gotten that close to becoming reality is in itself a disgrace, and further evidence of how cynically and shabbily the government treats horse racing in the Empire State.

Under the bill, Catskill OTB would have its “area of operation” redefined to include the five boroughs of New York City. This is a bit like extending the reach of Rhode Island’s state government to include California, Florida, and Texas. This would allow Catskill to set up OTB parlors throughout the city. Its chairman, Donald Groth, said in June that he hoped to have one parlor in each borough to start and eventually grow the total to at least 20 throughout the city. He even thought his new parlors could be booking bets by this past July, in time for the Saratoga meeting.

Why Catskill should take over offtrack betting in New York City – as opposed to any of the state’s other OTB’s, the tracks, the state itself or, for that matter, your brother-in-law – is not addressed in the bill.

When New York City OTB shuttered its parlors amid bankruptcy in 2010, its business was quickly absorbed by other (mostly online) entities. No one has seriously proposed bringing back NYCOTB, which did little except extract money from the racing industry to fund political patronage jobs for almost four decades.

Resuscitating NYCOTB under the leadership of Catskill – best-known as the operation whose security was so lax that it was home to the Fix Six scandal at the 2002 Breeders’ Cup – is obviously a non-starter. So how did it pass both houses of the state legislature? According to some Albany insiders, the measure was portrayed to lawmakers as a pro-labor bill that might help them court union support in the fall elections. With time running out on the vacation clock, the legislators signed off on a bill it is difficult to believe many had read or understood.

Now this unexploded shell sits on the governor’s desk, where one can only hope it is not signed into law by accident or as part of a trade for a bigger fish. If it is enacted, it will make a sham of Cuomo’s stated intention to overhaul and improve the racing industry. Part of that overhaul was supposed to include moving forward with long-stalled plans for the New York Racing Association to set up a few teletheaters in New York City, the only sensible deployment of brick-and-mortar betting facilities in the city in the online era. For Cuomo instead to cede that operation to Catskill OTB would be an embrace of a discredited OTB system that bears a large share of responsibility for the sport’s decline.

As the political blogger Tom Noonan wrote this week, “In a logical world, one would think that placing OTB’s in New York City would be part of the comprehensive review of racing that the Governor has indicated will take place under his leadership. Since the Legislature approved Cuomo’s takeover of racing with just one dissenting vote, logic would also dictate that the Legislature thinks any significant changes in the betting landscape would await that review, and that the Catskill OTB bill could wait. Or does it just come down to the same craven political considerations with the attendant patronage that sank the former NYC OTB, with the Governor acquiescing while we do our Christmas shopping?”

Perhaps the matter will come up for discussion next Wednesday at the first board meeting of the “new” New York Racing Association, which Cuomo forced under his control in June for at least the next three years. It also will be the first NYRA board meeting chaired by David Skorton, who has not spoken publicly in his new role since Cuomo appointed him to the post Oct. 18.

Skorton, president of Cornell University, is a widely respected academic administrator but has no known experience in or views about racing, and appears to have a day or two a month to devote to his new post. It will be interesting to see if he has an opinion on the Catskill bill and how quick a study he has been about the organization he will now lead. You can see for yourself: The meeting will be open to the public and broadcast live on NYRA’s website.