05/03/2016 1:58PM

Synthetic inner track being considered for Aqueduct

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The New York Racing Association is once again considering the installation of a synthetic surface for its Aqueduct racetrack in Queens, an official of the association told the New York Racing Franchise Oversight Board at a meeting on Tuesday.

Chris Kay, the chief executive officer of NYRA, told the board that NYRA had discussed the possibility of installing an artificial racetrack at Aqueduct for 2017, but he did not go into any other specifics about when it might happen or whether both dirt tracks at the facility would be replaced. Aqueduct typically starts its winter racing season in November and runs through mid-April, with most of the December-March dates being run on the inner track.

Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice-president of racing, said after the board meeting in a telephone interview that the discussions have not gone beyond the preliminary stage. “It’s been kicked around, that’s all,” Panza said.

He also said that the only dirt surface being considered for an artificial track is the inner track at Aqueduct.

“It wouldn’t make any sense to do both [Aqueduct] tracks,” Panza said.

Artificial surfaces have recently fallen out of favor in the racing industry because of complaints from some horsemen, breeders, and horseplayers over the style of racing on the tracks, among other criticisms. Despite those complaints, the surfaces are generally considered to be easier to maintain in the winter than dirt tracks, which has the effect of reducing the number of scratches during bad weather. In addition, artificial surfaces have consistently posted lower rates of catastrophic injuries than dirt surfaces.

Kay told the board that the Aqueduct meet might benefit from an artificial surface because the Woodbine meet in Toronto, Canada, closes in October. Woodbine is one of a handful of tracks in North America that has elected to continue to run over an artificial surface.

“I think we might be very successful in getting some of those guys to come down to race in New York,” Kay said.

Kay told the board that NYRA had talked with several trainers about the possibility of installing an artificial surface, but he said the association would need to have more discussions before deciding on a way forward.

* Also at the meeting, the board approved a request by NYRA to use $2 million of its operating funds to expand its account-wagering platform, NYRA Rewards, beyond the borders of New York state. The request stated that the funds would be used primarily for marketing and salaries, according to Robert Williams, the executive director of the Franchise Oversight Board.

NYRA’s partner in the project is Global Betting Exchange, officials told the board. GBE was selected several years ago by NYRA to overhaul NYRA Rewards, and the company is a 9 percent equity holder in the platform, NYRA officials said. NYRA owns the other 91 percent.

Expanding beyond the borders of New York will place NYRA in competition with well-established national account-wagering companies, in a market where growth rates have slowed significantly over the last several years. Still, officials estimate that approximately 40 percent of all wagers on North American horse races are placed through account-wagering operations.

The board also approved a resolution that will require NYRA to consult with a number of state government agencies, including the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, before deciding on any plans to make changes to the facility or the grounds at Saratoga Race Course. Daniel Ruzow, an attorney with Whiteman, Osterman, and Hanna who was described as an expert in land-use law, said the requirements would “ensure that the cultural resources on the historic Saratoga Race Course property are appropriately protected and preserved as development and new activities occur.”

* Jelena Alonso, NYRA’s chief financial officer, told the board at the meeting that the association had shifted some of its reserves to cover a potential $5 million “bad debt” with Nassau Off-Track Betting Corporation, leading to a discussion regarding a provision in this year’s state budget that will allow Nassau, a county-owned non-profit corporation, to receive revenues from 1,000 new slot machines at a casino next to Aqueduct.

Williams, the board chief, told NYRA it was his understanding that Nassau would be required to reach “some element of a reasonable repayment plan” with NYRA in the agreement that will govern the distribution of money from the new slot machines at the Aqueduct casino. The New York State Gaming Commission has final authority over the agreement, said Williams, and would ensure that NYRA’s interests were protected. In addition to his duties at the oversight board, Williams is also the executive director of the gaming commission.

A bill passed in 2013 allowed Nassau to open a casino with 1,000 slot machines. However, community opposition to a casino on Long Island has scuttled those plans. This year’s budget bill allowed Nassau to locate the machines at the Resorts World casino next to Aqueduct. Although horsemen and NYRA receive subsidies from the Resorts World slot machines, the Nassau bloc of machines will be treated as a separate entity that will not share money with the racing industry.