07/23/2012 2:06PM

Crist: Saratoga off to a good start, but uncertainty looms

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Barbara D. Livingston
Bern Identity, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, wins the Sanford Stakes. The meet is off to a good start in part because of a new bonus system intended to attract quality 2-year-old horses like Bern Identity.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The 144th summer of racing at Saratoga has begun as if it could be the best one yet. The daily purses, enhanced by revenue from the Aqueduct racino, are the highest for any track in the history of American racing, and that has led to full and competitive fields at every level of the game.

Let’s savor that good news for a few moments, because it may not last.

Saratoga’s racing, while still the premier meet in the sport, had been looking a little frayed in recent years, with stagnant purses and field sizes. The plant needs major overhauls, which will begin – or at least were supposed to begin – after this year’s meet, with major upgrades in place by next summer. The first thing to do, however, was to shore up the racing, and the new purses have made running here irresistible. Maiden races that were worth $52,000 are going for $80,000 this season. Allowance races have purses as high as $95,000.

Two-year-old racing had been on the decline due to a variety of factors, but it had been getting to the point where it was unclear that Saratoga could continue to present three meaningful stakes races in each juvenile division (the Sanford, Saratoga Special, and Hopeful for colts and the Schuylerville, Adirondack, and Spinaway for fillies). Maiden races at the Belmont meet preceding Saratoga weren’t filling, and there weren’t enough stakes-ready prospects for Saratoga. So NYRA instituted a clever new bonus program to get 2-year-olds to come to New York for maiden races before the meet, offering a $100,000 bonus to any juvenile who won a maiden race downstate, then won a graded stakes race in New York.

[STEVEN CRIST AT SARATOGA: Follow Crist's live blog every racing day]

It worked immediately, with strong fields in both the opening-day Schuylerville and Sunday’s Sanford. Bern Identity, the Sanford winner, came for the race only because of the bonus scheme, which had attracted him to Belmont to win a maiden race and then to Saratoga for the Sanford.

It has been a heartening start, promising the kind of a meeting that both the operators and fans of New York racing have been dreaming of for more than a decade, through a bitter fight to retain the racing franchise, after battles with the now mercifully defunct New York City Offtrack Betting Corporation, and amid countless delays in the opening of the Aqueduct facility. It should be a time of satisfaction and celebration.

Instead, however, it is a meeting enveloped in apprehension and uncertainty because almost as soon as it is over on Labor Day, the state of New York, in its infinite wisdom, is poised to blow it all up.

Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he is taking over the New York Racing Association sometime this fall, when he will appoint the majority of a newly constituted board of directors of the New York Racing Association, with only five of NYRA’s current board members allowed to continue serving. His appointees on the Franchise Oversight Board said they are reconsidering the allotment of racino revenue to racing and have threatened to suspend it. Cuomo’s lieutenants have said that key members of current management will be replaced right after Saratoga and that the new board will conduct a nationwide search for new executives.

Much of the gossip around the track and the town’s watering holes is about who these new board members will be. The names being floated are typically disheartening: political operatives between state appointments, former legislators, deep-pocketed political donors, minor celebrities who have never operated so much as a lemonade stand – most of them people with little knowledge or respect for racing.

Cuomo has yet to articulate a single goal or vision for racing in New York, a single thought about what if anything he thinks needs to be changed, other than that it would all somehow be better off with his cronies in charge. He also has said or done nothing to dispel widespread concern that he’d be perfectly happy if horse racing disappeared in New York, replaced by full-scale casino gambling.

So it seems destined to be a summer where there is a successful race meet with excellent sport, but with an ax hanging over everyone’s head. Every employee is nervous about whether he’ll have a job this fall, the horsemen are worried that the higher purses will disappear, and Saratoga residents and town officials are fearful that charitable and cultural institutions supported by NYRA racing for decades are now in jeopardy. The customers have no idea what to expect. We might as well just enjoy the improved sport, for as long as it lasts.

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russell More than 1 year ago
go ahead Rufus, please explain how I twisted it. I would love to hear it . Maybe I'm wrong but. Eric Adams from Crooklyn was also involved in the fix on he racino. Lets see some facts Rufus. I know Adams is complicit.
Rufus More than 1 year ago
Sorry Russell, you've twisted it a bit. Floyd Flake, former politician, and his henchmen were the cronies to benefit from the scam being perpetrated by Paterson et al. Paterson, Silver, Sampson, and Smith were going to collect from the deal afterwards. These are professional scammers at work, moonlighting as politicians because they're not qualified or honest enough to do anything else. Corrupt Cuomo ignores them out of professional courtesy.
russell More than 1 year ago
Rufus- You are 100% correct in the bid-rigged Aqueduct racino scam. BUT the dirty politicians involved in this deal were almost all minority democratic leaders from Queens. Floyd Flake, a former politician and current leader of the largest church in Queens was also involved. If you think a Governor running on the Democratic ticket would do anything against this group you are nuts. Cuomo turned a blind eye and if he attempted to prosecute them he would be called a racist. NY politics at its worst. One thing you didnt mention is that former NYRA CEO Barry Shwartz started this mess. He selected MGM without a competetive bid process. No one has ever wrote how that went down. They started working on Aqueduct Racino and were thrown out. I would love to know how that deal went down.
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
Russell, what I am saying is that Hayward didn't want the politicians on his case for sabotaging the NYCOTB. The decrease in takeout would hurt NYCOTB, not the NYRA. This ultimately was the judgement that did Hayward in. More importantly, do you think the Governor really was concerned about this or did he have another purpose in mind?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sorry Sal, I'm not buying this excuse. If true this was a terrible decision but I don't believe it. Of course the governor has another purpose in mind. I don't think anyone here disputes this and he wants ALL the slot revenue. However, NYRA has a long history of poor management so they are an easy target. The fact that Hayward allowed Rick Dutrow to stay on the grounds is another disgrace. He could have simply said take your horses and go elsewhere but he never did. He tolerated this nonsense. NYRA can deny anyone they want access to their tracks. Simply business as usual at NYRA. An oldtimer I knew very well at Belmont had a brother that was a politician and even he said of NYRA; "They ruined a beautiful game" Indeed they did.
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
It's difficult to know what really went on. I can only speak about what I have read in the NYSRWB interim report and some of Tom Noonan's stuff. But, what I know as a remote player is the NYRA has the best product in the game. Their website alone is fabulous. The live feed presentation is excellent all day long. The horseracing is the best in the game as well. I am not sure what they ruined.
mrm More than 1 year ago
His one goal and objective is to take back some or most of the slot revenue earmarked for racing. That is the one sure bet.
Rufus More than 1 year ago
Corrupt Cuomo doing his "selective perception" routine. He NEVER once lifted a finger or, opened his big mouth to focus on his corrupt cronies as in Paterson, Silver, Sampson, and Smith, who were instrumental in trying to put over the Aqueduct Enterainment bid-rigging scam, which was to benefit ONLY themselves and their friends. The scam ended up costing New York and it's citizens millions of dollars. What did Corrupt Cuomo do or say about the scam as ONLY the Attorney General of New York? Absolutely nothing! Well then, what did Corrupt Cuomo do as ONLY the governor of New York to insure that corrupt individuals like these, involved in the scam, were brought to justice and held accountable for their actions? Corrupt Cuomo NEVER opened his big mouth, or lifted a finger to do a thing. No one EVER got indicted, ever got impeached, ever got dis-barred because of the actions of Corrupt Cuomo, all despite the absolutely scathing report into the investigation of the scam by the independent investigator, Joseph Fitch. Corrupt Cuomo should have indicted himself for aiding & abetting crooks in the comission of their crime but, naturally he wouldn't consider that because he's Corrupt Cuomo and he's above the law. Corrupt Cuomo holds other people to different standards, just not his cronies and people who give him money. Folks, that's what a Corrupt Cuomo brings you. The important thing is to remember he is the source of the problem, and to NEVER, EVER VOTE FOR THIS CROOK OF A POLITICIAN, AGAIN.
Vincent Condeni More than 1 year ago
Hi Steve, Why are you allowing your business and personal connectrions with the NYRA destrioy your Online and Personal Racing Reputation? Come clean by admitting your improper involvement, if any, with the NYRA. The NYRA has you unfairly twisting in the wind. To safe their shakey reputation, It appears they are setting you up to take the hard fall and become racing's number one scape goat. Do not not allow this to happen. I suggest you immediately write an objective column and fully explain your relationship, both business and personal, with the NYRA. Why in the world do you need them to subsidize your DRF Blog and other race track amenities? You and the DRF are Racing's premier spokes person and supporter. Racing Fans need your vision, wisdom and journalistic brillance to level the playing field between them and the profit oriented State Regulatory Agencies and the greedy and incompetent Race Track Operators. Steve, Shakespear. 600 years ago, summed it up best when describing your current predicament:: "If You Steal all my Money, You have Stolen Nothing. If You Steal My Reputation, You Have Stolen Everything." Steve, I remain one of your most loyal fans! I will continue to support You and the DRF as long as these reckless charges and bogus Blog comments remain false and unproven! It's up to You to make the tough decision and do the right thing! Good Luck and Good Health, Always!
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
I thought Steve's role in the matter concerning the takeout law has been clarified in the press and online numerous times. My understanding is that Steve received an email from a reader questioning why the takeout reduction hadn't taken effect according to the way the law was written. Steve passed the information on to Charles Hayward of the NYRA. Hayward told Steve that he was seeking clarification on the process outlined in the law from his legal counsel and regulators. Charles asked out of professional courtesy to not go public with the information until he got legal clarification. Steve complied. Hayward never heard back from his legal counsel or the NYSRWB. So he didn't act. The NYSRWB claimed a spam filter ate the NYRA email. Isn't it little strange that the Guv does not hold his own appointed oversight board with any of the accountabilty for the mistake? There is another committee chock full of the Guv's appointees that missed their responsibility to accurately apply the law. I find it disheartening that horseplayers and horsepeople call the Charles Hayward-led NYRA corrupt just because the Governor and his cronies say so. It clear to me that the process to apply the change was misinterpreted by Charles Hayward and the NYRA along with NYSRWB and the Oversight Committee. But, only one person and organization got the blame. To me that was little too convenient given the Governor's plan to let Genting takeover Aqueduct in return for large political contributions. Why are we blaming our own in horseracing when it is obvious to what is really going on here?
russell More than 1 year ago
Sal even if what you are saying is correct Charles Hayward failed to follow up on this important matter involving HIS CUSTOMERS!!! As a leader you follow-up and get a correct answer; you don't just ignore it and blame your legal counsel or the NYSRWB. That is a pathetic excuse. Your own legal counsel doesn't get back to you? Thats hysterical. Sounds like he buried his head in the sand. As for NYRA it was poorly run under Barry Shwartz and continued under Hayward. He had to get a loan for $20 mill from the state. That's embarassing. There was also the clerk of scales scandal involving Jose Santos riding 10 lbs overweight. That crap was going on during the inner track meet for years. The solution is very simple. The new CEO must say what must i do to win back the confidence of my bettors! What must I do to make this game clean and free of corruption?
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
It's probably not as simple as it seems. Hayward wanted to follow the law, but the process was not clearly spelled out. Hayward believed that he needed NYSRWB's approval. Hayward was reluctant to ask the NYSRWB because it would appear he would be trying to harm the NYCOTB by lowering their takeout. Remember, it was mostly the OTBS and ADWS that benefitted from the higher takeout, not the NYRA. When the NYSRWB did not answer his request he thought they didn't want to approve it. Of course, the NYSRWB conveniently lost the request. And no one in the state of NY thought to hold them accountable. As soon as it became clear that he was wrong, Hayward rectified the error.
russell More than 1 year ago
Sal I'm not buying this excuse. Hayward could care less about NYCOTB. NYRA and NYCOTB have been at war forever since they were both competing for customers. And if I was NYRA CEO I would continue the war because NYCOTB was a cancer on NYRA. A leader makes the decision and does not defer to others. THE RACES WERE BEING RUN AT HIS TRACK SO HE IS RESPONSIBLE REGARDLESS OF WHO BENEFITED. The NYSRWB fuggazy email is a joke but if I was Hayward and I had proof I sent that email I would make sure I got my story out there first. Have to say I'm not buying any of this.
Jane Hough More than 1 year ago
Man, I thought it wasonly Pletcher who brought out the bashers amongst racing fans!!! Gee, Mr Crist, you touched a nerve; being from IL. it just sounds like business as usual- whatever will line the pockets! - then cry 'boomed' about a historic sport that should be 'saved' at the expense of everyone else. Racetracks are continuing to be run as if it was 1950-60's-' the only game in town' and have only to beg for a bail-out from State in their survival plan- as if it's their God-given right to be in business! ---the attitude that got the business where it's at today.So, I'm just going to wait for Pletcher to sweep of a card coming up in near future- and read your daily Saratoga blogs- thanks for making it feel so close!
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Please remember Jane that the States were reaching into racing's pocket for decades when tracks were privately funded and owned.
Jane Hough More than 1 year ago
Yes, the price every state 'charged' for legal gambling; IL tracks are still privately owned, but those track owners threaten State with 'closing doors' all the while having made NO initiative to improve, better or change with the times- no plan what so ever has ever been attempted to actually compete with the gambling dollar, as each 'new game' was legalized- this goes back to the Lottery!(late 70's/early80's?) The attitude has always and remains-they deserve to exist and profit because they own a racetrack???? Somewhere along the line, they got the idea that they should always be (and rake it in) with no bother to themselves-like they got it coming???? Maybe that's the unknown factor- the Deal the State & these operaters made decades ago???? It just galls me that they think they should be bailed out because of their blatant attitude of seeing themselves as above and beyond competing. Would love to see IL tracks continue: I don't believe the people who are running them deserve to continue.
Robin Dawson More than 1 year ago
Jane...this is so true. Its the presumption or feeling of entitlement of racetrack owners that they should be baled out for their incompetence that is so grating. The bottom-line, though, is that few people care...as is confirmed by the fact that, by comparison to most important issues, (Lady Gaga's latest shopping trip, for example) this story has elicited (so far) only 133 comments, of which many are multiple contributions from the same people. We're whistling into the wind, I'm afraid.
russell More than 1 year ago
I love the Breeders Cup but it has harmed NY racing more than any other event I can think of. The reason I loved horse racing is in the span of 5 years my father took me to Belmont and I saw Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, and John Henry. Pre-Breeders Cup if you wanted to win an Eclipse award you had to win it in the fall at Belmont Park. What has the BC done for NY? Virtually nothing. Complete disgrace. Chad- the writing is on the wall, Cuomo is going to pick some lackey and drive NYRA further into the ground. Aqueduct will be sold off within 5 years and the racing in NY will be from Mid April to Thanksgiving. Cant say I would miss racing at Aquedump.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Yep Russell , You are right but the mind turns and you wonder... What Could be done? The inner track never WAS NY racing which, in the era you mentioned, was the best on Earth. In my latest little pipe dream I indicate something that any corporation would do to fill a vacancy but again... but. Maybe some packages of manure to the Guvs' place would say it better than I can. I s'pose it's too much to ask for a politician to do the job he's getting paid for. I know this much, two days of tv advertising and yapping will never replace the fall highweights. Guess it's back to my pipe...
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
If you have something, anything in need of repair, wouldn't you try to get the best help possible? Wouldn't you want someone with hands-on experience in the field? So then, instead of accepting a list of appointees why would you fine folks from New York and all who race there not demand that Cuomo put out a search for a professional to come out of the Racing Business itself. There must be a Director of Racing or Racing Secretary out there who would lay his (her) butt on the line to save New York Horseracing and bring it back to the level it once held. It Must be someone who knows the business of Racing and the People who make Racing happen.
Robin Dawson More than 1 year ago
Chad..I could fix NYRA in the proverbial New York minute. But unfortunately anyone with racing experience and ideas is disqualified from even applying. Indeed, when I sent a proposal to Charles Haywood, several years ago, he never read it...so that, when I phoned him, he didn't even know why he didn't like what I was proposing. Maybe I should have been more direct and suggested his immediate firing. At least I would have been priescent.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
OK then, if reason has completely failed, let's take this Richard Dutrow Jr, pull his Trainer's license and install him as head of NYRA. That makes as much sense as what has been happening for the last 35 years.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Here is a must-read for everyone by ESPN's Paul Moran from Sept 2010 , ' Saratoga Season '.