Spent the last couple of days trying to sort out the latest developments and reports regarding the future of NYRA so that I could organize my thoughts and write a coherent and well-thought out post...
Well, actually, I've been out at rock shows the last two nights. I'm tired and so I'm just gonna go with some random ranting and raving, if you don't mind; it'll be fun. It all started on Monday when the Post's Frederic U. Dicker reported - and I think we can now say, inaccurately - that Governor Cuomo - "in a startling move....plans to seek public bids for a new operator to replace NYRA.....from for-profit companies with deep experience in the racing and/or entertainment industries."
This immediately sent NY racing politics wonks like myself scurrying to once again read the vague language in the Franchise Agreement that would allow the Racing and Wagering Board to revoke NYRA's franchise. Until I quickly learned that that is not exactly what the governor intends to do. Howard Glaser, Cuomo's director of state operations, acknowledged and explained:
“The legal franchise is with the New York Racing Association — that doesn’t change,” Glaser said. But, he added without elaboration, “that’s a different question than who the operator ultimately is.” [Saratogian]Actually, that's a debate I'd be happy to have with Mr. Glaser, another know-nothing political suit espousing the party line that the state has seduced the press and, in turn, most of the public into believing.
Glaser said the possibility of hiring out management services is one of several options under discussion as public control of NYRA nears. "That NYRA is not functioning to expectations, that is not controversial or debatable."[Albany Times Union]
It took the New York Times to ultimately put the pieces together for me. Essentially and summing up, what the governor was really saying is that the new NYRA board will be charged, as per the legislation to take it over that he must sign by Oct 1, with the task of determining the best course for the NYRA tracks once the state cedes control in three years. While he would be amenable to the idea of a private operator taking over, that would only occur if the new board basically votes itself out of existence. According to the Times (in the section of the article that was not turned over to Joe Drape for his canned spiel about the Aqueduct breakdowns, thereby apparently qualifying it for inclusion in its Breakdowns - Death and Disarray series), the governor in fact was not necessarily pushing for the racetracks to be put in private hands. And in what was by far the most accurate thing he's ever uttered about the industry, Cuomo said:
“I’m not really a horse racing expert.....I don’t know this industry especially well. The point of the exercise of appointing the board is to do the study and the research to answer that question.”
So, that's a lot different from what Dicker initially reported. If his authorized biography of the governor is as accurate as some of his reporting, it might end up being adapted for the screenplay of a new original series on SyFy.
Now, it has also been reported that potential new operators of the NYRA tracks could include companies such as The Stronach Group or Churchill Downs; in fact, I saw a couple of stories that reported that those companies had no comment when asked about their interest. That made me laugh. I don't think I'm going out on too long of a limb when I say this: Neither Frank Stronach nor Churchill Downs will ever operate the NYRA tracks. Unless Cuomo and the legislative leaders load the board with either raving lunatics, extended Stronach family members, or former contestants in the Frank's Energy Drink Model Contest, nobody in his right mind is going to conclude that "the best way to get value for the taxpayers" is to hand the tracks over to Frank Stronach.
The case against Churchill is a more subtle one, as I wouldn't put that company in the inept buffoon category. Part of it relies on my own naive belief and faith that, in the end and when push comes to shove, good ol' common sense generally wins the day. (As we can only hope continues in this case.) Considering that Andrew Cuomo threw such a hissy fit when NYRA had the unmitigated gall to contract out call center jobs to a Churchill Downs-owned hub in Oregon, do you really think that he would ultimately permit the entirety of New York racing operations to be sold to that company with its corporate headquarters in Kentucky? Seriously? What do you think that Churchill Downs Incorporated would say if Cuomo tried to tell them how and where to operate their business more efficiently? One doesn't have to look very hard to see how this bottom-line oriented public company approaches their acquisitions - just look at the Brisnet website. CDI bought that company in 2007 to acquire its lucrative ADW platform, and to use its data as a lure for bettors to add to its profits. But the website itself, still a wealth of useful information - much of it free - has languished in technological obscurity here well into the digital age. Not a single pixel of that site has been updated since then (and nor for that matter for as long as I can recall, going back literally to the last century). Its past performance product, at its core a perfectly acceptable alternative to the Form, hasn't progressed past the PDF stage! I'd guess that the Belmont grandstand would meet a similar regimen of neglect.
Somebody has got to get the governor's ear on this stuff. What exactly does Ben Liebman do anyway? We lost his indispensable racing news link site on the Albany Law School site when he took a position as Cuomo's Deputy Secretary for Racing and Gaming, and we never hear from the guy. As I recall, Ben has mixed feelings towards NYRA. But certainly he's one guy who could surely advise the governor, who seems to genuinely take great pride in the state's accomplishments and resources, that New York racing is a precious resource too, with a storied history and - still, despite his best efforts - looked up to as a leader (and revenue generator) by the rest of the horse racing nation. I mean, this governor is just downright disrespectful - seriously, he wants to take charge of racing and he can't show up for the Travers or the Belmont? The other day, he referred to the sport as "quote-unquote horse racing." What the quote-unquote fuck does that even mean? Someone has to be able to impress upon this man - isn't that what advisors are for when it comes to topics that the governor himself admits he lacks knowledge? - that, whatever his opinion of NYRA is, the idea of the New York tracks becoming just another item in Churchill Down's portfolio of racing and gambling properties - including Calder, where they resort to near-naked women on the video monitors to try and generate handle - would be an insult to his state and an affront to anyone - person or horse - who has ever stepped foot on a racetrack here.
Also keep in mind the possibility that Cuomo has - or so we're told by the press - presidential ambitions for 2016. The end of the three years of state control will roll around just when the primary races are starting to heat up. So the governor will have to be careful about anything that gives even the appearance of shipping jobs out of his state. "Governor, you sold out the storied Saratoga racetrack to a company in Kentucky; what's to say you won't ship jobs overseas?" I can just picture candidate Andrew Weiner asking him at a debate.
Whatsmore, (and I think finally), the recently prevailing winds coming out of this administration have borne the stench of the reduction, if not elimination, of revenue from slots. Glaser even mentioned "significant subsidies from the state" during his press appearance on Monday. But there isn't a company in the world that is going to be interested in operating the tracks if - as we've heard suggested by other Cuomo tools in the administration - slots subsidies are cut or eliminated. And that's not even considering the possible damaging effects of full-blown casino gaming. So this new idea of privatization actually flies squarely counter to the party line that the Cuomo administration has been sounding up until now.
So, I guess I just could have said in place of all of that: I don't see this happening. The NYRA Board will do their research and conclude that things are not nearly broke enough to fix. And just as Governor Spitzer reluctantly accepted the New York Racing Association, so will Governor Cuomo. And as much as he really cares about all of this, he'll get over it in a few hours.
And one more thing.
Dicker again refers to the "massive 'takeout scandal' that cost bettors nearly $8.5 million over a 15-month period ending late last year." And yeah, I know I've gone off on this before. But, to me, the biggest scandal about the takeout error, as I'll refer to it, is the way it's been grossly blown out of proportion as a means to get us to this uncertain point where we are now.
For one thing, if you're going to slander someone by misrepresenting facts, you might as well do so accurately. According to the outgoing communications director Dan Silver - who has never told me anything inaccurate and surely has no reason to do so now - the correct figure is actually $7.3 million, with $1.1 million bet through NYRA. Dan informs me that someone, at some point, double counted the $1.1 million, adding it back and rounding it up to $8.5 million, and it just stuck. Nitpicking? Maybe, but let's get the number right. Of that $1.1 NYRA piece, $438,000 was returned via NYRA Rewards, and $157,000