12/03/2014 11:51AM

Skorton resigns as head of NYRA Reorganization Board


NEW YORK – As the New York Racing Association moves forward with plans toward re-privatization by the fall of 2015, it will do so without David Skorton, who announced Wednesday he is resigning as chairman of the Reorganization Board at the end of December.

Skorton’s resignation was expected at some point before the end of his term, as last March, he was named the next secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex. He begins in that role next July.

Skorton said his current duties as president of Cornell University, including overseeing events commemorating the university’s sesquicentennial anniversary, as well as helping transition to a new president, plus getting ready to move his family to Washington in the spring, prompted him to resign from NYRA at year’s end.

“There would never be a great time [to leave], but this was my best estimate,” Skorton said after the meeting.

Skorton was selected by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in October 2012 to head the NYRA Reorganization Board, which was put in place for a three-year period and charged with reforming the association before returning it to private control by the fall of 2015. It will be up to Cuomo to name a replacement chairman.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to an inquiry by Daily Racing Form on when a new chairman will be announced.

NYRA is required to present to Cuomo by April a re-privatization plan for the company. Surprisingly, no components of that plan were discussed during Wednesday’s two-hour meeting.

Instead, the meeting focused primarily on the highlights of the current administration, which include turning the organization to profitability for the first time in 13 years. NYRA projects to have a surplus of $1.5 million in 2014 and has budgeted for a $2.1 million surplus in 2015, both exclusive of revenue it receives from the casino at Aqueduct. This is despite NYRA being down $58 million in handle since Saratoga and projecting a three-percent decline in overall handle in 2015.

After the meeting, NYRA President Chris Kay said NYRA has adjusted its forecasts based on lower handle this fall, saying at one point NYRA had estimated a $2.9 million surplus for 2014.

According to officials, NYRA was able to turn profitable based on record-setting business on Belmont Stakes Day, increases in admission, box seat and parking prices at Belmont and Saratoga, an increase in the rate it charges for its simulcast signal, and expense cuts.

NYRA will raise prices again at Belmont and Saratoga, though Kay said those increases won’t be announced until January.

As part of its cost-cutting measures in 2015, NYRA will close the Aqueduct backstretch for five months and close Belmont for simulcasting on dark days beginning in January.

The only thing discussed Wednesday about NYRA’s future was the racing calendar for 2015, which could have a slight change in the winter schedule. NYRA has sought permission from the New York Gaming Commission to go to a four-day race week starting Feb. 19 and to take off the last week of March (25-29). In 2014, NYRA raced four days a week in February. Thus, NYRA is seeking a 74-day winter-spring racing schedule in 2015 at Aqueduct compared to 79 days in 2014.

“We’re trying to run fewer days in March, when we worry about certain level of fatigue in some of our horses that have been racing in January and February, and take some of those monies that would have been used in March and put them into April, where we create a spring meet that hopefully induces some folks to come back up earlier,” said Kay.

Aqueduct’s spring meet would open April 1 with the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial slated for April 4.

Kay also said one change to the Belmont spring-summer meet would be the elimination of racing June 3, the Wednesday of Belmont Stakes week, in order to hold a draw event in Manhattan for the Belmont. Kay also said he hopes to make the Friday before the Belmont Stakes a bigger day.

“This year, we called it the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival,” Kay said. “Next year, it truly will be.”

Len Riggio, a board member who also is on the Racing Committee, said Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations, has proposed some tweaking of the Saratoga stakes schedule. No details were given.

At a meeting of the Franchise Oversight Board, NYRA said it was planning to enhance Travers Day, making it look more like Belmont Stakes Day, to the extent that it is projecting a $9.6 million increase in handle for that day.

Among other highlights at the meeting was a revisit of the hotly debated Lasix issue between board members Bobby Flay and Rick Violette, who on Tuesday was re-elected to a third term as president of the New York Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association.

Flay re-iterated his position that racing in America has a perception problem based on the use of race-day medication. Lasix is the only drug permitted for use on race day. Flay recommends in 2015 that NYRA card races for 2-year-olds without allowing them to use Lasix, a proposal Frank Stronach has made for his tracks.

“Lasix isn’t the problem,” said Violette, who added that the perception problem stems from “uncatchable trainers or stables” using medications other than Lasix.