12/14/2010 4:18PM

Racing keeps on taking low blows


The triple slayings of horse racing in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, and California’s solution to save its racing by raising takeout in time of crisis, are crimes of murder and self-immolation unpardonable.

The industry’s responses illustrate that racing has no defense mechanism against the politicians who create and controlit the game, and further crimes can be expected coast-to-coast.

The New Jersey situationfirst, because it is the most heinous of the crimes,involving involves broken promises at best and mass destruction at worst.

That state’s chest-thumping and ambitious governor, Chris Christie, issued his most recent anti-racing proclamation by vetoing his state racing commission’s award of the usual 141 days of racing to the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park, saying “it would be inappropriate” to approve them, and instead approving 36 days of harness racing for what had been the state’s and the nation’s most important meeting, and threatening Thoroughbred racing as well.

Christie and his chief executioner, Jon Hanson, showed an abysmal lack of understanding of racing – or an arrogant disregard for it – by proposing a six-day “Hambletonian week” at the Meadowlands, which insults intelligence by assuming that you can open a huge, closed track by simply turning on the lights.

The Meadowlands already shows the ravages of neglect even before the rampaging pair closes it down, and their decision to supposedly save taxes throws thousands out of work. They leave the lives of the state’s entire racing colony whose economic welfare they ignore at risk, uncertain of whether theyit will race and where with three weeks to go.They wish them a happy new year and tell them to get lost.

The situation is just as bad in Maryland, where seemingly the sole concern is saving the Preakness. The difference is in scale. Maryland’s racing industry, other than that classic race at a decrepit track, is in shambles. New Jersey still has, or had before the Christie-Hanson assault, a vital industry that presented the best harness horses and drivers and trainers in the world.

Frank Stronach says he is en route to straighten things out, but the divided Maryland Jockey Club, now facing internal civilstrife between its co-owners – Stronach’s group and Penn National Gaming – is fighting on two fronts, between itself and with the politicians who allowed all this to happen.

Maryland’s racing commission, unlike New Jersey’s, did not even vote ceremonial dates. It refused to accept those proposed by the tracks, so as a new year dawns there is no 2011 racing scheduled for the state, once a proud breeding site and leader in American Thoroughbred racing. Its harness track, Rosecroft Raceway, once a thriving training center for young horses under three generations of the horse-owning and loving Miller family, and now owned by Maryland’s harness horsemen, was allowed to die by shutting it out of a share of slots revenue, harsh as that appraisal is for horsemen to swallow.

On to New York, where a crime almost as brutal as the Christie-Hanson killing, took place last week. The the state Assembly’s Republicans voted, with some misgivings, to approve their Democratic governor’s reorganization plan for New York City Off-Track Betting. The Senate’s Democrats refused to go along, walking out of a special session in Albany for five days before walking back in, forcing OTB to postpone a Friday closing to the following Tuesday.

Then, in an act of perfidy, the Democrats refused to go along with the Assembly’s approval of the Paterson plan, perhaps thinking that this was the fourth or fifth instance of the boy crying wolf and that there was no way OTB would close its doors.

Except there was, and it did.

Its chairman, Larry Schwartz, who also is Gov. Paterson’s chief of staff, explained, saying, “We are out of money. We are out of cash. We are out of business.”

And with that simple sentence, 50 offtrack betting sites in the nation’s biggest market closed, along with OTB’s advanced deposit wagering and the company’s role as America’s biggest bookmaker, handling some $700 million a year.

With the demise, New York’s tracks lost their shares, totaling as much as $60 million or so owed them by OTB, which had declared bankruptcy. The precise figures were not announced, but were somewhere in the vicinity of as much as $30 million for the New York Racing Association, operator of Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack, and historic Saratoga Race Course, and roughly $20 million for Empire City at Yonkers Raceway, sitting smack on one of the busiest urban highways in America, the Deegan Expressway leading from the affluent northern suburbs directly into New York City.

New York City OTB’s Schwartz understood what the Albany vote meant, even if the callow legislators did not, or did not care. He said, “This is going to have an impact on the entire state of New York, not just the impact of 1,000 people losing their jobs. This is going to have a tremendous impact on the racing industry. I believe that upstate tracks will close, horse farms will have to shut down, breeders will be moving out of state, many businesses that support the racing industry will have to lay off people or shut down their operations.”

Except for NYRA, which incredibly, from a public relations point of view, responded by immediately announcingconfirming pay raises of 3 percent to lower-level nonunion employees and 5.5 percent to some of its top execs. NYRA’s president, Charles Hayward, before confirming the raises – including his own from a reported $460,000 to $473,800 – said, “There are going to be some hard times” ahead. The raises may have been justified by three years of non-raises, but the timing drew immediate and understandable blasts from an unbelieving and unforgiving press.

Across the nation, the California racing board, already had shown its economic shortcomings, responding to its own hard times by raising the price of the product to consumers in the midst of a depression.Two hundred twenty years ago the French rushed to the streets with cries of “To the guillotine.” I understand their torment far better now, in views of the disastrous events in American racing in recent days and weeks.