01/24/2013 2:25PM

NYRA's Skorton stresses safety as top priority

David Skorton was appointed as chairman of the New York Racing Association's Reorganization Board in October.

As the president of Cornell University, Dr. David Skorton’s admitted limited interest in Thoroughbred racing was primarily in equine health and safety, his university being home to a strong veterinary medicine program and a state-of-the-art equine hospital.

As chairman of the New York Racing Association’s Reorganization Board, Skorton’s emphasis remains on equine health and safety at a time when NYRA, for the second consecutive winter, is dealing with a rash of fatalities at Aqueduct and Belmont Park.

In the first 25 racing days since Aqueduct’s inner track opened Dec. 12, there were five racing-related fatalities. There also were four training-related deaths over Belmont’s training track. This doesn’t take into account the two accidents that resulted in significant injuries suffered by jockeys Ramon Dominguez and Rajiv Maragh, which did not result in equine fatalities or even breakdowns.

“I think we need to do better to reduce the incidents of breakdowns,” Skorton said in a recent phone interview with Daily Racing Form. “I’ve been told the number of breakdowns in general that NYRA has is not much different than the average. I don’t think that’s good enough. This is probably a little bit hyperbolic, but anyway I think one death is too many. I’m not naïve, and I realize there are risks in the sport. But I think it’s all of our jobs − the NYRA board, the media, the jockeys, the horsemen, everyone − to reduce as much as humanly possibly the risks to both horses and jocks for that matter.”

Last winter, there were 21 racing-related deaths over Aqueduct’s inner track, which led to Gov. Andrew Cuomo establishing the Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety. One of its many recommendations was to establish an equine veterinary medical director, which on Jan. 17 Skorton announced NYRA would do.

That day, Skorton also announced that at Friday’s meeting of the NYRA Reorganization Board, the curtailing of racing on the inner track would be discussed. He clarified Monday that meant a reduction, not elimination, of racing on the inner track.

That could result in a four-day race week, as opposed to five, and/or fewer races per day − eight instead of nine. It could also mean an earlier move to Aqueduct’s main track.

Also, Skorton said he wants to discuss the possibility of replacing Aqueduct’s inner track with a synthetic surface, a proposal that has already been met with much skepticism.

“Some of those items may turn out to be not the right thing to change,” Skorton said. “It’s also possible that there are things I did not put on there that need to be thought about. I anticipate a wide-ranging, hard-hitting discussion about where we should go going forward on Friday.”

Skorton, 63, was appointed as NYRA chair by Gov. Cuomo on Oct. 18. The new board, which consists of 17 members, nine of whom served on the previous NYRA board, is charged with appointing a senior management team. It must also, by the middle of 2015,  “advise the state . . . on Thoroughbred tracks and the future of the franchise,” according to Skorton.

Asked if Gov. Cuomo has expressed to Skorton an interest in consolidating Aqueduct and Belmont into one track, Skorton said, “He has said nothing about consolidating, and once again he understands and has told me that he cares about racing and the racing industry is too important to the state not to have NYRA performing at its absolute peak.”

The NYRA Reorganization board met for the first time Dec. 12, for nearly three hours. Skorton said he understood the scope of work that needed to be done but underestimated the time frame in which issues needed to be addressed. That is why he elected to hold his second meeting Friday and not in March as he initially intended.

“There is more urgent work to do than I first anticipated,” Skorton said. “The scope of work looks about the same to me, but the urgency of certain things became clear through the eyes of the other board members.”

At the Dec. 12 meeting, Skorton created eight committees. On Friday, he was to announce the formation of a search committee for a new president and CEO, one that he will chair. NYRA has been without a hired president and CEO since Charles Hayward was fired in May as a result of NYRA overcharging bettors on takeout rates on certain exotic wagers for a 15-month period.

“I’m viewing the arrangement and establishment of a really excellent senior team as my No. 1 priority,” Skorton said.

Ellen McClain, who served as NYRA chief financial officer during the time of the takeout error, was elevated to president and chief operating officer following Hayward’s departure. McClain’s future with the company is uncertain.

“I know that Ellen is considering her future options,” Skorton said. “Everyone is aware that we need to search for a CEO ASAP, and the process for that will be introduced Friday.”

Skorton comes to NYRA as a racing outsider. His background is in higher education and medicine. He has served as president of Cornell University, an Ivy League school with 15,000 employees at its main campus in Ithaca and medical colleges in Manhattan and Qatar. Before coming to Cornell, Skorton was president at the University of Iowa for three years and a faculty member at that school for 26 years.

Skorton was a doctor specializing in congenital heart disease in teenagers and young adults. Though he no longer practices, Skorton does do some consulting. He also teaches part-time at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan.

Skorton was on the boards of seven non-profit companies dealing in higher education and economic development, but, he said, he has walked away from five of those boards to focus on Cornell and NYRA. He remains on the board of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Recently, Skorton was asked by Cuomo to be an organizing member of the Innovation NY Network, a project that helps state entrepreneurs make the transition from research to market and provides incentive for start-up companies to remain in New York.

Skorton, who has yet to attend the races at any NYRA track, said he believes his work experience will help him overcome his lack of racing knowledge and enable him to be an effective leader at NYRA.

“The key reason that I can be of some help in this situation is not because I’m going to teach people about Thoroughbred racing – that’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s because I have a long history in governance of nonprofits and public entities, and I think I recognize what needs to be done for appropriate governance to occur.”