03/20/2014 12:28PM

Steven Crist: Not much reorganizing going on at NYRA

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Having heard in the opening minutes of the latest board meeting of the New York Racing Association Reorganization Board that Aqueduct Race Track is is a “dirty and dangerous” place, I headed out to the Big A last Saturday to see if this is in fact the case.

It is not – but Aqueduct, like NYRA itself these days, is indeed a dysfunctional mess.

Aqueduct is home to the only casino in New York City, the Genting Resorts World facility with its acres of slot machines, upscale eateries, and robotic table games. You might think that the arrival of this casino more than two years ago might have dressed up or livened up the racing part of the facility, but instead it’s reminiscent of what happened when casinos came to Atlantic City: Nearly 40 years later, that seaside resort is nothing but the same old slum with a dozen gambling palaces dropped into its midst, the rest of the city unchanged.

At Aqueduct, the track and the casino are not partners but feuding roommates, acting as if the other does not even exist. There is not a single sign directing track patrons to the casino or vice versa, or a single television in the casino showing the live horse races taking place a few yards away. The relationship, which the state could have mandated to be a cooperative and mutually beneficial one, has grown more and more acrimonious, and Genting’s name has disappeared from sponsorship of this year’s Wood Memorial.

This is par for the course at American racinos, but we kept hearing that it was going to be different in New York. Instead, we have a governor in Andrew Cuomo who keeps suggesting that racing should be discontinued at Aqueduct, a longtime refrain from outsiders to racing who have not thought through how that would work. Winterizing Belmont Park is a massively expensive proposition that no one can pay for and still would leave New York racing without enough stabling for its horses if Aqueduct closed.

The NYRA Reorganization Board has been charged with examining this issue, and the entire future ownership and operation of New York racing, but the evidence from its new “transparent” (i.e., televised) board meetings is that no one is doing any serious thinking about that. Instead, the board seems stuck exactly where it was when it began its mission 18 months ago, with trustees complaining about their luncheon accomodations rather than addressing the future.

There are some good things happening at NYRA, especially on the racing side since the hiring of Martin Panza from Hollywood Park to restore and reshape a stagnant racing office and program. Unfortunately, these improvements are undermined and obscured by the fear that Aqueduct could be shut down by the state, no matter how unrealistic or unlikely that actually is.

NYRA recently announced an overhaul to the statebred stakes program, theoretically making it more attractive to invest in farms and bloodstock in the state. The best way to encourage such investment, however, would be to remove investors’ fears that half of the New York racing program might disappear at a governor’s whim, and building confidence that there is any kind of plan to preserve what could and should be a successful industry.

Instead the governor has charged NYRA management with demonstrating it can balance its books without the revenue it receives from the casino, an exercise designed only to stir fear that he has some kind of plan to circumvent the law and take that revenue away. That’s the dirtiest and most dangerous thing going on at Aqueduct.

PETA’s charges

The racing world awoke Thursday to a huge and ugly mess in the form of charges of animal cruelty and labor violations by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, accompanied by hidden-camera video taken last year by a PETA investigator posing as an employee of the Steve Asmussen stable. It was typically dishonest, sensationalized propaganda from PETA, but was given a veneer of credibility by being leaked to and endorsed by The New York Times, which first reported the story after being given exclusive access to the material.

Nobody expects PETA to be fair or accurate, but the Times is supposed to be better than that and never would have run the story on its own without observing the basic tenets of journalism its readers expect and deserve – putting the taped remarks in context, investigating the assertions or going to the targeted parties for their reaction and explanation. Instead, it avoided any of those basic obligations with a one-sided “scoop” on a third party’s uninformed and unanswered allegations.

This one isn’t going away quickly. The video, however unfair, is sickening in its coarseness and callousness. Racing’s supposed leaders and spokesmen need to formulate a swift and strong response, exposing the more ludicrous insinuations and addressing those with any merit.