12/14/2012 4:40PM

Crist: Much time required for NYRA's massive tasks

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The most important thing that was accomplished at the board meeting of the New York Racing Association on Wednesday, the first since it was put under government control last August, was the education of its new chairman that he had severely underestimated the enormity of his task and the time required to fulfill it.

David Skorton, the president of Cornell University and a racing neophyte, was appointed to the chairmanship Oct. 18 by Governor Andrew Cuomo. He scheduled his first board meeting for Dec. 12 and planned to hold future meeting on a quarterly basis, with the next one penciled in for early March. When asked early in the meeting how often he wanted seven subcommittees to meet, he said he hoped that they could convene at least as often as the full board did, perhaps earlier in the day of those meetings, once every three months.

It reminded me of the first meeting , 20 years and two months earlier, of then-Governor Mario Cuomo’s “Commission on Racing in the 21st Century,” to which I was one of nine appointees. We were charged with delivering a comprehensive report on reforming the industry within nine months and I was prepared for an intense, full-time engagement. Someone asked how often we would meet and our chairman said “Once a month seems about right.” I actually began to laugh, thinking he was kidding, but he wasn’t.

Skorton at least proved to be a quick study: Less than two hours into his first meeting, he acknowledged that quarterly meetings would not be enough and said he planned to call the next one for sometime in January. Skorton is clearly not going to be like past NYRA chairmen, who attended the races regularly and had working offices at all three NYRA tracks, but we must measure progress incrementally amid the tortoise pace of government control and monthly beats quarterly when it comes to addressing problems.

Skorton, who came off as affable and an expert at running smooth meetings, had his change of heart after being exposed to only the tips of a few of the icebergs that NYRA must navigate in the months ahead.

NYRA has been without a chief executive for more than six months and is just starting to search for a new one. It is understaffed in other departments as employees have left amid the political turmoil without being replaced. It has yet to develop an agenda for the legislative session that begins early next year, or a position and plan to address the prospect of full casino gambling in the state.

It has dumped a vast trove of racino revenue into purses without making badly needed capital improvements because every important project been stalled under orders from various government agencies. (Why, for example, is there a government-run “Franchise Oversight Board” reviewing NYRA contracts and policies when NYRA itself is now a government-run Franchise Oversight Board?)

It is unclear whether Skorton or the new board members appointed by the Governor are even aware of all these shortcomings, but they at least got a taste of them in comments from some holdover board members. They noted that the Aqueduct facility has never been more decrepit and uninviting, that the tracks’ infrastructure needs immediate attention, and that NYRA needs to invest in improved tote and technology. (Skorton called technology improvements a top priority, ironically, amid a board meeting that was ineptly presented on an unwatchable live webcast filled with long dropouts and buffering delays.)

The meeting did have its occasional moments of comic relief. Among the various resolutions the new board was asked to approve was one prohibiting corporate officers from wagering on the races. This is a silly and unnecessary restriction, unfairly suggesting impropriety, and it raised some eyebrows.

“Why would we prohibit officers wagering, since we’re in the wagering business?” asked Stuart Janney, a board member and the chairman of the Jockey Club.

I thought I heard some assenting murmurs, and it seemed for a moment that there might be some actual discussion and dissension amid the thud of rubber-stamp approvals. Then someone pointed out that board members are not technically corporate officers and could continue playing the races.

The room exhaled, and the resolution passed unanimously.