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Thursday, February 14, 2008

It Is Now Post Time

- I'm not quite sure where to start! Although it's not really like anything earth-shattering actually happened on Wednesday....nor in the last few weeks, really. I think we've known for awhile now that what happened yesterday was a foregone conclusion, even if Duncker had us going for awhile there.

By now, most of us are familiar with the basics of the deal which, in many ways, don't differ much from the terms of the original MOU. Senator Bruno fought the good fight against an intractable foe playing a virtual straight flush; but his gains were relatively minor, especially compared to his original position. 25 years instead of 30, who cares; NYRA gets 14 out of 25 board members as opposed to 13 out of 19. The horsemen do better than what was reported the other night - 6.5/7/7.5% over the first three years, and then 7.5% going forward. (Still not as good as the harness guys, who got their 8.75%.) But NYRA still gets the same 4% for capital expenditures and 3% for operations. And, of course, the state gets the land, as well as the intellectual property and the rights to simulcasting. More significantly for Bruno, NYRA will be subjected to audits by the state comptroller, and be subject to "performance standards."

However, the agreement may be equally notable for what it does not include. No change in the OTB model other than their purchasing of simulcast signals in conjunction with NYRA, and Mayor Mike ain't happy.

“While addressing the extension of the NYRA franchise today, the State Legislature and the Governor missed an opportunity to link on and off track betting operations." [NY Daily News]
Well, that's for sure, I mean, God damn it!! Also, no slots at Belmont. The performance standards, which are not specified, do not include anything regarding doping horses. Here's the list:
Racing dates, new york bred horse races, horse stalls, jockey and equine safety, state concentrated animal feeding operation, backstretch conditions, the Saratoga training facility, handle and attendance, purses, expenses of the franchised corporation, and the communities surrounding Aqueduct racetrack, Belmont Park racetrack and the Saratoga race course.
The Franchise Oversight Board, who I hope are going to be paid extremely well considering all of the XVIII duties that they have (my favorite is (XV) SUE AND BE SUED) can recommend to the Racing and Wagering Board that the franchise be terminated due to a material breach, or enough non-material breaches to add up to a material breach (I'm not making that up), of "objective performance standards that shall allow contract review in a manner consistent with this chapter." And only after NYRA gets a chance to cure. So it's all quite vague, and some lawyers could make a fortune arguing over what is 'material' and whether it's been cured.

However, while Senator Bruno may have gained merely these lesser and indeterminate rewards, his intransigence ultimately caused little harm, if a lot of angst, and a pretty pissed off Charles Wait. The horsemen likely feel it was worth it, and that's probably a sufficient award for his efforts by itself.

In any event, everybody should be quite happy I'd say. NYRA gets to keep their little plaything for the next quarter century, and they get some free money from a slots operation that they don't even have to bother operating. Not a bad deal. The state gets to add $1 billion onto its balance sheet and gets its VLT revenues. The horsemen get their higher purses, though how high just remains to be seen, given the disappointing performances of most New York State racinos. The folks at Vernon Downs get their jobs back, Jeff Gural gets bailed out, the harness horsemen are thrilled.

And, in my most humble opinion, fans and horseplayers are winners too. Now I know that not all of you agree with that; and some may cancel their subscription. I've been happy to host some lively discussions along the way, and I appreciate that everyone kept the discourse respectful and civil, despite some strong feelings on each side. I've never blamed anyone for blaming NYRA, as long as they had their reasons, and were not just blindly spitting back the usual Empire/Capital Play party lines.

But my personal bottom line is over 30 years of regularly attending the races at NYRA tracks; and I still love it now as much as I ever have. For wherever they may have erred, whether due to incompetence or arrogance, each one of the tracks, in its own, not always obvious way, is a little piece of heaven. I can't really think of much, other than the quite obvious need for major renovations (not specified in the agreement) and the safety issues that the entire industry is dealing with, that I would change about any of them. And the quality of the racing here has spoken for itself over the decades, most recently at the Monmouth Breeders' Cup.

However, I've also felt all along that NYRA never presented a vision for the future, and merely relied on the threat of its land claim. Whatever the other bidders' faults, whether they were morally decrepit, bereft of good judgment, or merely delusional, they at least presented a grand plan with ambitions and ideas. I found some of it infectious, and I was open-minded to change. It certainly would have been interesting if nothing else had the original Excelsior held together and gone forward with their Ad Hoc Committee recommendation.

But now, with the franchise in hand, it's time for NYRA to let its intentions be known, and give us an idea of what they have in mind for two/five/ten years down the road. We still don't know what kind of renovations we can expect, or how (if?) it plans to attempt to revive live attendance at the track. We don't know how they plan to become profitable, and build (with the needed cooperation from the state of course) a model that can stand on its own when the slots bubble bursts, just as all such frenzies eventually do. While the detention barns were a start, nothing further has been articulated as to how they plan to clean up the game as we go forward. Hell, we don't even know how NYRA plans to get by the next 12-14 months before a racino is operational on the mere $30 million they're being given to do so! So it is now post time, and past time, for NYRA to look ahead to the future, and to let us know what they see.

But first, it is post time, at 12:30 PM today, for $20,000 claimers going six furlongs to kick off the early daily double, and all seems right with the least in Ozone Park. Good luck and have a great day!


Anonymous said...

Alan, nice quick precis of your initial thoughts on the racing bill, you must have been burning the midnight oil again. Hope to see a more detailed abstract of what is actually in the bill, good and bad, and what the effect will be. Has the basic business model been improved by virtue of the VLT revenue sharing deal? What about gaming and wagering law reforms? I share your great disappointment that OTB was left to wither on the vine for another day. /S/Green Mtn Punter

Anonymous said...

My big issue with NYRA is the tellers stink. They are a surly bunch. Send them to charm school!

I plan to open my NYRA rewards account in short order.

Anonymous said...

A new NYRA board member:

Posted on Thu, Feb 14, 2008

Hendrickson named to NYRA board

SARATOGA SPRINGS — John Hendrickson, the husband of philanthropist and horse owner Marylou Whitney, is joining the New York Racing Association board as one of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s appointees.

“We need to do things more out in the open, and work together as trustees for the public. Eventually the assets will be the state’s, everyone has an interest in the tracks. I think they do Saratoga very well, and Saratoga will be protected,” Hendrickson said Wednesday evening, shortly after the new franchise agreement was approved.

Hendrickson, who has been a critic of NYRA operations, stressed that he wants to look forward and be a positive force on the board.

“There’s no question that the people on the board care about racing. I admire what they’ve done in making New York racing the best in the world,” he said. “However, we have to get the attendance up at Belmont and Aqueduct. They need a better marketing plan.”

He also stressed openness and accountability.

“We have to do a better job conveying to the public that we’re working in their best interest,” he said. “Why not allow the press in to the meetings?”

Marylou Whitney Stables owns more than 70 horses, and the Whitney family has been an integral part of New York racing for more than 100 years.

“This is our main home, and we love it,” Hendrickson said.

Anonymous said...

with the economy tanking, who's has left over money to bet.

I have more important things to do now, like SAVE IT!!!

Anonymous said...

Dead heat for "Anonymouses" 10:08

steve in nc said...

Alan, I share your feelings about the NY tracks. I live far away now and can only get to the downstate tracks once or twice a year. And call me a loser, but for that one day a year I'd take a Thursday at AQ or BEL over a day at a tropical beach.

There just is nothing like handicapping in advance and arriving full of anticipation and possibility, getting to watch the horses get saddled and warm up, listening to the crazy characters, wrestling with value decisions while the tote blinks, listening to Tom Durkin and watching the races through binoculars, even if I don't cash. Watching on TVG doesn't hold a candle to it.

Aqueduct offers the best view of the races. Belmont has that amazing walking ring and is the only place I know of where summer is walking distance from winter.

Let 'em put in good restaurants so the slot machine addicts can underwrite our game, but I'll still go to the rice & beans joint in the grandstand. Heaven may be more pleasant but it won't be as exciting.

So complain if you need to about the state of those tracks (hearing passionate complaints about everything is an important part of racetrack culture), but I sure miss 'em. Some day this spring, I'm going to find a way to get to Belmont for a day. I can't wait to smell the horseshit -- not Bob B's horseshit -- the real thing. With apologies to countless bluegrass musicians and to Gil Scott Heron, home is where the horseshit is.