08/08/2017 7:17PM

Lawmakers envision more independent NYRA

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Lawmakers supportive of the New York Racing Association expect to push for legislation giving the association greater power over the composition of its board and its future, the legislators said during a panel on the Saratoga Institute on Equine Racing and Gaming Law conference on Tuesday in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Both lawmakers, who represent upstate counties including Saratoga Springs, said that legislation passed this year that restored control of the board to NYRA was successful in giving the association more power to plan its own affairs. But they also said that they would like to see the state have less involvement in NYRA’s operations in the future.

“It truly is not the final word,” said Sen. Kathleen Marchione, who was elected to the State Senate in 2014 and was instrumental in pushing for the legislation this year. “We need to continue working toward a NYRA that is even more private,” a reference to the number of seats on NYRA’s board that are still reserved for government appointments.

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The legislation this year gave NYRA the control to appoint eight of the 17 members of its board, with a ninth seat reserved for its chief executive. The State’s Senate, Assembly, and governor were each given the power to appoint two members, with two additional seats reserved for the state’s horsemen and its breeders. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had engineered a takeover of the NYRA board in 2012, citing dissatisfaction with the management of the association.

Marchione and Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner both said that they supported the legislation because they felt that NYRA was being hamstrung in its long-term planning by the state’s involvement. The cause became a contentious issue in 2016 and 2017 among business and civic interests surrounding Saratoga, where NYRA’s racetrack is an economic powerhouse for the region.

Woerner said that legislation would be further needed to protect NYRA in the future from any state attempts to cut into the association’s share of revenues from a casino adjacent to its Aqueduct racetrack in Queens, especially now that discussion is becoming more and more prevalent about the consolidation of downstate racing at NYRA’s Belmont Park on Long Island. That would mean the closing of Aqueduct, NYRA’s winter home for racing.

Rick Violette, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the organization’s representative on the NYRA board, predicted on the same panel at the conference that the legislature is likely to force that consolidation in the next “five to 10 years.” The state owns the deeds to NYRA’s three racetracks as the result of a franchise agreement negotiated in 2008 that expires in 2033.

Before that happens, Violette said, NYRA will need legislative help to protect the casino revenues flowing to the association and obtain guarantees from the state that would enable Belmont to be converted into a year-round racing facility, a project that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  

“There needs to be a real open and transparent discussion about all these things,” Violette said.

Bernard Bryan, a longtime legislative aide who is now a consultant, said that he believes it is inevitable that the state will seek ways to “monetize” NYRA’s properties now that they own the deeds, and that the NYRA board needs to develop strategies now to protect its interests.

“The board has to be prepared to have a meaningful input in that legislative process,” Bryan said.

Already, the state has issued a request for proposals to develop two parcels of land on the Belmont property, with the proposals due in a matter of months. Woerner was critical of the process, saying that she feared the development was being rushed at a time when NYRA’s new board has not been able to develop long-term strategies that could either be harmed or complemented by any development the state might choose.

“We stand a good chance of adopting [a proposal] that runs counter to what racing should be doing to protect its future,” Woerner says.

A previous version of this article misstated Rick Violette's title at the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. He is the president, not the executive director.