12/12/2012 8:09PM

NYRA board meeting educates Skorton, the new chairman


NEW YORK -  At the outset of his first meeting as the chairman of the New York Racing Association Reorganization Board, Dr. David Skorton said he would be "depending on a lot of input, listening and learning" from his fellow board members.

Over the next 2 1/2 hours in a New York State office in midtown Manhattan, Skorton, a racing novice surrounded by some board members who have been involved in the sport all their life, others who are new to the game, did a lot of listening. Undoubtedly, he learned more about the mammoth issues facing NYRA while adeptly, if not expeditiously, navigating through the first open board meeting in the 57-year history of the NYRA.

When the meeting was done, Skorton felt good about the exchanges between board members and holding the meeting - and future meetings - as he put it, "in the sunshine."

In October, Skorton was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be the chairman of the NYRA reorganization board and try to restore some integrity to an organization tainted by scandal. Skorton, 63, is the president of Cornell University, a cardiologist, and a professor of biomechanical engineering.

After hearing from board members about the numerous issues facing NYRA, Skorton felt compelled to hold the next meeting in January and not March as scheduled.

One of the things to be addressed quickly is a management team. NYRA has been without a CEO since Charles Hayward was fired in May. Skorton did not have an immediate time frame for when that will get done.

"The very first thing any fiduciary board has to do is make sure you're comfortable with the structure as well as the personnel and management," Skorton said. "We started today, three hours ago. One of the reasons I decided to call the next meeting a month from now instead of three months from now is there's a lot of issues we need to move along on quickly and one of the first ones is to make decisions about the management structure and personnel."

Earle Mack, a former member of the NYRA board of directors, said he felt finding a CEO was of the utmost importance.

"There should be as little gap as possible," Mack said. "It's a very important job. It's a tough job, you can't just parachute in there. I would hope that we look toward someone with previous exposure and experience to racing."

Ellen McClain, NYRA's COO, has been in charge since Hayward's firing. Skorton would not address McClain's job status specifically, but commended her and others at NYRA for being "very cooperative, open, and helpful with this transition process. As you can tell by watching the dynamics of the board meeting, it's a complex process to bring together very experienced people in the Thoroughbred racing scene who are not on the board, very experienced people from the Thoroughbred racing scene who were on the board and the newbies like me."

During the meeting, Skorton was told by board members about the poor condition of Aqueduct, which is where racing on this circuit will take place through the end of April. Len Riggio, a horse owner and holdover from the previous board, said succinctly, "I won't go to Aqueduct" because it's so dirty and unkempt.

Added trainer Rick Violette, a non-voting member of the board, representing the horsemen: "Aqueduct has never been in worse condition at the beginning of a meet."

McClain said that Genting, the company that operates the Resorts World casino inside Aqueduct, has not lived up to its responsibilities of keeping the racing side of the building clean. NYRA has begun to bring employees from Belmont over to clean Aqueduct.

McClain was also critical of Genting's slow movement in helping to break ground on a new 24,000-square foot simulcast facility inside Aqueduct. Construction is scheduled to begin next week, according to NYRA board member Michael Dubb.

Later in the meeting, after McClain and Susan Stover, NYRA's CFO, gave a positive financial report about NYRA - the company's earned operating income was $24.8 million, up 143.1 percent for the last quarter compared with the same time period in 2011 - board member Bobby Flay, a celebrity chef, horse owner, and new board member, called it "sugarcoating."

"We got lucky, said Flay, in that video lottery terminals "bailed out NYRA. We don't have a product that the public wants to go see. We need to build the infrastructure of the racing product. We need to start doing that now, not later.

"NYRA always been the leader, we're somewhere in the middle now," Flay added. "We have all this money."

Several new measures were passed at the board meeting. NYRA senior management is forbidden from wagering and providing political contributions to candidates. The New York Thoroughbred Racing Industry Political Action Committee was terminated.

Michael Kotlikoff, the dean of the college of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, was appointed as Special Advisor to the Board for Equine Health and Safety.

Further, all future board meetings and even those held by board committees in which decisions will be made will be open to the public. Also, there will be two public hearings held in the first half or 2013.

Skorton was asked about restoring the public's faith in racing.

"There's three questions imbedded in there," Skorton said. "One is will the public believe that the money is being well spent? I hope that we will do a good job managing the resources and also give the public access by putting the quarterly financials on the web and then people can make their own decisions.

"Secondly, will we improve the racing experience? And thirdly will people believe that the integrity of the organization is such that they feel good about New York Thoroughbred racing? Of course you'd expect me to say this, but we intend to fulfill every one of these goals as quickly as possible."