08/09/2016 6:34PM

Former Cuomo aide criticizes governor's handling of NYRA franchise


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – A panel at a law conference discussing the current state of the New York Racing Association franchise ended with a former official of the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo sharply criticizing his former boss’s policies toward the franchise.

Bennett Liebman, a widely respected racing law scholar who served as Cuomo’s deputy secretary for gaming and racing from 2011 to 2014, said at the end of the panel during prepared remarks that a recent decision by Cuomo to extend by another year the state’s control of NYRA’s board was symptomatic of “a great degree of unreality” surrounding the NYRA franchise. Liebman then listed the options presented earlier this year to Cuomo by NYRA and the legislature and stated that the NYRA plan was “the best of all possible worlds for the governor,” yet Cuomo rejected it.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Liebman said.

Liebman’s comments underlined the often puzzling political environment surrounding NYRA, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. Four years ago, Cuomo engineered the takeover of the NYRA board, citing his dissatisfaction with NYRA management. The takeover, which gave Cuomo and the legislature the power to appoint a majority of the board’s members and led to wholesale turnover in NYRA’s upper management, was expected to last three years, but state control was extended both last year and this year.

At the time of the takeover, Cuomo’s administration was considering legislation to overhaul the state’s casino gambling statutes and potentially identify new sites for casinos. NYRA’s Aqueduct is the site of the Eastern Seaboard’s highest-grossing casino, which is operated by Genting under a license from the state. The casino is required by law to provide a portion of its revenue to NYRA and its horsemen.

Liebman was critical of all the political machinations surrounding the status of the franchise, saying that none of the principal actors had provided any justification for how the various proposals would lead to real change in how the association is structured or managed. Liebman was then critical of groups that had picked sides in the political debate, saying that many were “fighting just to fight.”

“The same people who are serving on the reorganization board are going to serve on the next board, no matter which proposal goes through,” Liebman said, noting that the current board has voted unanimously on every major proposal presented during its meetings over the past four years. “There have been zero differences in viewpoints between the public appointees and the private appointees [since 2012]. . . . We are arguing about nothing.”

Richard Violette, a trainer who is the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association who has been an ex officio member of the NYRA board since its reorganization, also was sharply critical of the political climate surrounding NYRA, contending that it was handcuffing the association’s ability to plan for the future. Violette listed a number of long-term planning issues that the board should be addressing, but he said the planning is not occurring because of a reluctance to rock the boat with the franchise unsettled.

“We’ve wasted four years,” Violette said.

Liebman closed his comments with a recitation of the declines in handle on both Standardbred racing and Thoroughbred racing since its heyday in the 1950s, and, following that, since 2005. Liebman stated that statewide handle on both breeds is down 29 percent in the last decade, when adjusted for inflation.

“We have real problems in New York racing,” Liebman said. “The NYRA reprivatization issue should not be one.”