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Thursday, July 31, 2014

He's F$%#ing Ba-ack!

Scott Blasi is back, and why shouldn't he be?  That's up to his boss, and to the owners of the horses who, we're told, have been advised of, and are fine, with his return.  As we've said, the snippets of video released to the public showed mostly that Blasi has a foul mouth and an irritable disposition.  As far as the accusations of rule and ethical violations, let the investigations in New York and Kentucky draw conclusions about that.  The regulators in those states will take the appropriate actions if necessary and appropriate.  A spokesperson for the New York Gaming Association said that the investigation is "expected to wrap up soon."  Maybe I'm wrong, but I would think that if the near-completed investigation had been turning up substantive violations, then Blasi would be ruled off the grounds pending its completion.

And we also have this twist: It was reported by David Grening in the Daily Racing Form that the PETA's female investigator who compiled the tapes and compiled the 285-page report had a "personal relationship" with Blasi.  That had been the subject of much (loud) whispering, and was something that I only hinted at here.  But this is the first time I've seen it reported in the press.  And I think you can bet if it's in the Daily Racing Form, whose writers in general (and Grening in particular) have as much or more professional integrity than anyone in the business, than it's no longer mere speculation.  Even if it was not reported in Joe Drape's story in the Times.  However, there hasn't seemed to be much of a reaction to the revelation, at least what I saw on Twitter (which is hardly the entire universe, but it seems like it sometimes).  In fact, I was told that the "Twitter police" did not approve of the reporting.  Maybe it's because it's something that people already assumed.  But still, I find that odd.  Not only do I personally find the entire affair to be seedy and repulsive, I think it changes everything.  (And if it were a male investigator that entered a relationship with a female trainer in order to record her surreptitiously, I'd guess the conversation would be a whole lot different.)

Not only does such a relationship change the entire context of the portions of the video when Blasi and the investigator are alone; but now one can quite fairly question the motivation behind the report.  Once you introduce the bedroom, who knows what was going on?  Perhaps it turned out she was a jilted lover trying to get even.  As far as I'm concerned, you can take all of the video and all of the documents, throw them in the garbage, and use the Times to set them alight.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

East Greenbush Board Member Having Second Thoughts on Casino Vote

 - For those of you looking for horse racing content, I'm blogging regularly over at the TimeformUS blog.  I wrote most recently, about the Haskell, here.

September 8-9 are the days set for the presentations by the 17 casino applicants to the New York Gaming Commission.  I guess they're gonna be pretty short and sweet.  The 9th is also primary day in the state, if that means anything.  There will be public hearings in each of the three regions slated for a casino on Sept 22-24, but specific dates/sites have not yet been announced.

In East Greenbush, the town just outside of Albany where Saratoga Harness and Churchill Downs hope to build their Capital View casino (and where a suit against the project has been filed by the feisty opposition group there), one of the Town Board members who had voted, along with the rest of its members, to pass the resolution supporting the facility has now withdrawn her support.  Mary Ann Matters is calling on her colleagues to do the same.  Ms. Matters contends that the developers have pulled a bait-and-switch on the town, downsizing the hotel from an original 300 rooms to a 100 room facility.  What was widely presumed to be a 4-star hotel is actually, as stated in Capital View's Executive Summary, a 3-star hotel.....that as opposed to Saratoga Harness' proposed casino in Newburgh, a 4-star hotel with 300 rooms with the ability to expand to 500. 

“To add insult to injury, we have yet to be told by the developer how the downsizing of this project will impact the previously forecasted revenues, jobs and prospect of lower property taxes,” [Ms. Matters] said. [Troy Record]
Morgan Hook, the spokesperson for the developers, acknowledges that there have been "some adjustments to our proposal to accommodate and protect local business interests," but maintains that "we have engaged with every member of the Town Board and provided them with a full and detailed account of what our proposal is and will be."

Mary Ann Matters counters that it is simply not true that the entire board has been informed.  And since she is a member of that board, she would probably know.  My information is that she and the board did know about an intermediate downsize of the hotel from 300 to 150 rooms prior to the binding resolution vote.....but only because they attended a presentation by the developer.  Only when the Executive Summary was released was it learned of the further downsize.  Additionally, I've been told, Ms. Matters says that there have been downsizes to a covered parking area and to the entertainment facilities (the latter of which could perhaps be due to an agreement with the Upstate Theaters for a Fair Game). 
Matters said it was only a few weeks after the vote when she realized the project had changed dramatically.  "We want what we were pitched back in April: a world-class destination resort casino, not a local casino that primarily features what seems like a gambling parlor," said Matters.  [Time Warner Cable News]
Sounds more like the existing local casino/gambling parlor at the Saratoga harness track.  In fact, the 100 rooms now planned for a hotel at Capital View is actually less than the 108 room hotel planned for Saratoga Casino and Raceway!

We don't expect a further response from Saratoga harness and Churchill Downs today.  They are busy working on finalizing a new partnership in which Churchill will take over management duties of the racino.  (They are already contracted to manage a casino in East Greenbush should they win a license.)
SHRI and CDI have also signed a binding term sheet and begun negotiations on a stock purchase agreement wherein CDI will purchase 25 percent of economic and voting interests of SHRI. In addition to its flagship Saratoga Casino and Raceway in Saratoga Springs, NY, SHRI owns a controlling interest in Saratoga Casino Black Hawk in Black Hawk, CO; a 50% interest in a joint venture with Delaware North Companies to manage the Gideon Putnam Hotel and Resort in Saratoga Springs, NY and a minority interest in Ellis Park, a thoroughbred racing and instant racing machine facility in Henderson, KY. SHRI, together with its partner Rush Street Gaming, filed a second application for a New York casino in Newburgh, NY in the Hudson Valley-Catskills Region. [CNN Money]
So, that would get Churchill into the New York gaming market, for whatever that is truly worth, even if Saratoga harness gets a license in Newburgh instead...(and, as I've been saying, I will be absolutely stunned if they don't get one of the two.) well as a share of Kentucky-based Ellis Park, which is interesting. 
"We are very excited about the expansion of our relationship with Churchill Downs," said James D. Featherstonhaugh, Secretary and Chief Legal Officer of SHRI. "We look forward to a long and successful partnership between two iconic names in the racing and gaming world."
Feathers recycled that generous description of his B-list, at very best, company from the Executive Summary.

Following up on the post the other day about the worth of the benefits being promised to different host towns (in apparent inverse order of the towns' economic needs/desperation), the developers at the proposed Nevele site in the struggling Catskills region have outlined some of the goodies awaiting the towns of Ellenville and Wawarsing. 
A new anti-drug officer for the Ellenville school district, $100,000 annually for court operations in the town of Wawarsing and village of Ellenville and half the cost of a new ladder truck for the Ellenville Fire Department [lol - ed.] are among the benefits....Nevele Investors LLC also has agreed to grant a 5-mile easement across its property for the Hudson Valley Rail Trail and has promised to use all union labor in the first phase of its construction project, promote local cultural events and work closely with Family of Woodstock and the Family Health Institute to develop programs to address social impacts, including mental health and addiction, that sometimes are associated with gambling. [Daily Freeman]
A far cry to be sure from the millions being lavished by other developers on more affluent communities that don't necessarily need the help.  They get 'host agreements.'  The Nevele is offering a "community mitigation plan" and asking for tax breaks.  “We’ve got unrivaled community support. We are universally loved," said Nevele CEO Michael Treanor. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Casino Bidders' Generosity is Not Universal

In the Gaming Commission's extremely ambitious timeline, July 21 was the date that oral presentations by the New York casino bidders could have begun.  However, the commission spokesperson Lee Park expects the majority of presentations will be given after Labor Day.  And with bidders such as Genting and Saratoga Harness yet to obtain the necessary environmental approvals (SEQRA), they certainly need the extra time.  Seems to me that it's the bidders that are driving the scheduling, as they would surely want to have that approval in hand before they make their presentations.  Also seems as if it throws the whole timing off. 

The state is expected to announce the casino locations in the early fall, according to the Gaming Commission website.  [Saratogian]
Well, some people might consider 'after Labor Day' to indeed be 'the early fall.'  Assuming that, following the presentations, the siting board is at least going to go through the motions of doing their due diligence before they award the licenses according to the governor's wishes, you gotta think that we're talking more about mid-to-late fall before the decisions are announced.

The local officials who are striving to bring a casino to their locale have a lot riding on the outcome....but some more than others.  This article in the Times Herald-Record discusses some of the goodies that were promised by casino hopefuls in order to obtain the towns' approvals; and, no doubt, to impress the Gaming Commission with their 'generosity' and commitment to the community.  $36 million in infrastructure enhancements to South Blooming Grove (a village with an annual budget of $1.2 million); $20 million in transportation upgrades for Woodbury; $50 million in cash for Tuxedo (plus upgrades to the boat club).

However, the host towns in greater financial need don't seem to have done nearly as well.  Seems these companies aren't quite as magnanimous when the prospective hosts are desperate for what they perceive to be an economic lifeline.  The town supervisor of Newburgh seemed like he was afraid to even ask for anything from Saratoga Harness.  ""I think what we proposed to them is a business proposition rather than a Santa List.....The casino has to make money, too."
He did arrange for the casino to pay a total of $2.6 million to the Valley Central, Wallkill and Marlboro school districts, all of which fall within the town's boundaries, and for the company to pay the City of Newburgh about $1.2 million per year in perpetuity. [Times Herald-Record]
In the Catskills, the struggling region that has been trying to get casinos for decades, the Town Supervisor of Thompson, where there are two bidders for the Concord site, said "We're happy to have the growth."  The town doesn't have a host agreement with either of those bidders.  And the developer at the Nevele in Wawarsing, right near Ellenville, not only isn't lavishing cash on the towns; they are actually requesting some generous tax breaks
It will, however, mitigate some of the effects of the casino by providing security cameras and paying for DARE and for anti-gambling and alcohol-prevention programs, but the amount spent will be less than $500,000.
  How nice of them!

The above-mentioned Supervisor of Thompson, one Bill Rieber, is rather peeved, one might say, at an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn who has sent a letter to the Gaming Commission criticizing one of the two proposed Concord facilities - the one by Empire / EPR Properties (the one related to Genting).
"The gloves are off. Anything less than a strong and very public statement from the Orthodox community leaders denouncing this unorthodox letter will be construed by us as total support of the content and Rabbi himself. Twenty-years plus of relationship building will be for naught. Game over.
"Mr. Caller, trying to make a name for himself in a lame attempt to run for Assembly in Brooklyn, has the unmitigated gall to cripple the efforts of so many people to bring gaming to Sullivan County." [Times Herald-Record]
Rieber wants nothing less than a very public and very demonstrable rebuke from the local Orthodox community, in writing.  Or else.  The interesting question here is why Caller, an attorney who has signaled his interest in running for the state Assembly, singled out the Empire project and not the one by Mohegan Sun and Louis Cappelli.  He would not explain why.  I'm sure there's gotta be a reason, don't you?  One that deals with the man's self-interest and/or political ambitions, no doubt.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Embattled Governor Extends Racino Hours

Governor Cuomo - who has other problems these days - quietly signed the bill that permits the state's racinos to remain open until 6AM.

Genting New York, operator of the successful casino at Aqueduct Racetrack, was said by sources to be among the most active promoters of the bill. [Bloodhorse]
 Because, I guess, they don't make enough money at Resorts World as is.
A legislative memo accompanying the bill states the bill's intent simply: "The purpose of this bill is to enhance the revenues of video lottery gaming facilities in New York."
 Obviously.  But at who's expense?
"There are weekend nights when we have a few hundred people on the floor when we close," said Taryn Duffy, spokeswoman for Empire City Casino in Yonkers, explaining the need for the change.  [The Legislative Gazette]
I can't say from experience, because it just so happens that I have not been amongst those few hundred people.  But I would just venture a guess that the scene at 4 AM doesn't look much like the one depicted on the home page of Empire City's website.

Y'think? I'm not sure if it ever really looks like that. I'd venture an additional guess that the scene at 4 AM isn't much less depressing than any time one walks into one of these things. And what happens when the same few hundred people are still on the floor at 6 AM, then do we go for 24 hours, as seems inevitable anyway, especially once the full-fledged casinos open their doors?

So it seems obvious to say:
"It's a law that callously targets problem gamblers," Coalition Against Gambling in New York Chairperson Stephen Schafer said.
And this is, as we've said, the racinos' idea of "responsible gaming;" the same commitment to such that I'm sure we'll see at the casinos.

The law also permits the racinos to expand their "free play" programs designed to lure gamblers with....well, "free play."
The amount of tax-free free play credits a casino can offer their customers is currently capped at 10 percent of their annual income. The new legislation would increase this to 15 percent. "Free play is the only marketing tool that we have," [Yonkers'] Duffy said.
Really? Empire City/Yonkers' advertising might fall into the 'ubiquitous' category over the years on TV and on billboards and taxis. And the racinos have been permitted to devote 8.6% of revenues for marketing, according to NYGA's 2012 annual report.  So, if they are having a marketing problem, it's probably due to other factors such as, for example, the general malaise that seems to be well underway in the casino industry in the Northeast even as casinos continue to expand.

 - With all the focus on the competition for the four casinos, it's virtually forgotten that there is still a slot open for another harness track with a VLT parlor.  After three bidders failed to obtain a license a few years ago, another effort is underway; this one way up north in Alexandria Bay, just 30 minutes from the Canadian border.  And though the location falls within the exclusivity zone of the St Regis tribe - as negotiated with Governor Cuomo as he cleared the landscape for his casino referendum - the Times Union reports that, according to the Gaming Commission - the state's agreement with the Mohawks doesn't prohibit a harness track or VLT facility from operating
[Developer Mark] Bohn wouldn't name the other members of his development group except to say it includes heavy hitters in the financial, gaming and horse racing industries. An outside consulting firm performed a market study for Bohn and his partners, and that data makes them think there's room for another harness track in New York.
 - As far as the aforementioned "other problems" that Cuomo is presently dealing with, perhaps you read the long investigative report in the Times about his staff's interference in the operation of the Moreland Commission that he created to, as he emphatically promised in his campaign, root out corruption in Albany.  The governor's 13 page reply to the Times is, typically as these things go, filled with technical arguments rather than addressing the practical questions, including one that I'd like to know (and which, curiously, was not amongst the 11 questions submitted by the Times' reporters) - Why did you say, with great fanfare, this....
"Anything they want to look at, they can look at — me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.”
......if, as he contends now, that was never ever the intention?  The response contends that the commission investigating the governor who created it would "not pass the laugh test?"  (We're not laughing, by the way.)  Though one theory is that the fact that the commission was deputized by Attorney General Schneiderman indeed gave them that right.

Cuomo's statement earlier this year that: “It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine, it is controlled by me” could turn out to be his "steamroller" moment.  Look, I could go on and on, but it's not the subject of this blog (though who knows, perhaps I'll have time to start a new one some time in the near future).  So let's just, trying to stick to the topic, say this:  If the governor feels that way, that can be applied to most any state agency or commission to which he appoints the members; such as the Gaming Commission which ultimately is responsible for the siting of the casinos.  So, I suppose that Cuomo feels perfectly entitled to interfere - or "not interfere" or whatever he wants to call it - with that process too.  And you can bet that he has, and that he will continue to do so.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

NYRA Pulls the Plug on Season Passes

"Oh shit!  We've sold how many of those things?"  I figure that's more or less what someone in the NYRA accounting department thought or said when he/she realized that they had sold some 6,373 clubhouse season passes for the Saratoga meet.  That is, according to NYRA, an increase of 354% from last year, when they sold 1,402 for the entire meet.  The pencil pushers must have realized that, if they sold any more at what really was a bargain basement price of $50, they might not meet those projections built into the forecast that reflect the expected revenue increases from the increase in daily admission from $5 to $8.

So, NYRA declared on Monday that the passes are "sold out."  The announcement seemed kinda random; out of the blue.  Correct me if I'm wrong, please, but there was no indication that I recall seeing that availability was limited to 6,373 or to any number.  The web page on the NYRA site simply stated that: "Once racing begins on the 18th, passes will only be processed from 8AM-10AM, and from 4PM-6PM at the Box Office on Union Avenue."  Can't blame anybody who was putting off buying a pass until they came up later in the meet for being unpleasantly surprised.

So when Chris Kay was quoted in the press release as saying that: "This has been an incredibly successful joint venture that has exceeded all expectations," I have no doubt that, while the latter part is certainly true, the accountants may consider it incredible only in that the passes were too incredibly cheap and they sold too many of them.  And while the press release notes that grandstand passes remain on sale through August 1 (previously mentioned as a cutoff date only for sales at Stewart's), it fails to mention that the passes have been abruptly removed from sale via the website.  That means you have to be in town by Aug 1 to purchase the passes, and virtually eliminates anyone from outside the area who won't be in Saratoga before then.  So I don't imagine that NYRA will be selling too many more grandstand passes either, which I'm sure is fine with the accountants, given that it only takes six admissions valued at $5 each to equal the $30 cost of that pass.

 - I wrote a bit about opening weekend and the Toddster's quick start in my Today in Racing column on the TimeformUS blog.

The Head Chef and I made a last-minute excursion for opening weekend - could only get as far as Albany lodging-wise - and what can one say that hasn't been said before.  When the weather is as nice as it's been (and as it was for much of the meet last year), it's hard to find things to complain about (though we will, just one minute please).  The place looked great (which means, mostly the same), there was actually grass on the ground in the backyard!  There were helpful illustrated directories greeting the crowds at each entrance (duh, noted the Head Chef); the promised new TVs were ubiquitous (though a bunch of them behind the Carousel suddenly went black literally just as a race went off midday on Sunday), the PA was audible in most places (though not in the paddock bar), and the racing was, for the most part, full-fielded and competitive.  The paddock bar has quickly become the undisputed social center of the racetrack.  It's a great scene, crowded without being oppressively so, a great view of the paddock from a railing at the back which is surprisingly not-that-crowded; well-poured drinks at reasonable prices with great service by a solid bartending crew.  I noticed the senior execs hanging out there after the races on Saturday, having a good time while soaking up the atmosphere of the place (which was instituted under Charlie Hayward's watch).

On the other hand - and of course, what fun would it be if there weren't things to complain about: The wifi was supposed to be expanded; if it was, it's still erratic depending on where you are and what time of the day it is. Some people are upset that bench space on the clubhouse apron has been replaced by dining tables.  The gazebo in the paddock from which Andy Serling and Jason Blewitt used to do their prattles has been replaced by a rather large broadcast facility that is outside the paddock, and which reduces the amount of rail space available for fans who want to see the horses in the paddock prior to the race.  It's rather awkwardly located, seems bigger than what they need for one or two people on camera (including, four days a week on Talkin Horses, TimeformUS' very own Mike Beer), and surely isn't conducive to a live audience, though I guess that really doesn't matter these days.  On the plus side though, a fence which used to enclose the paddock watching area has been removed, which makes the traffic flow a lot easier.  And honestly, it didn't seem any more crowded along the remaining rail space than it used to be.

There was a tiff with Sean and Joe Clancy, who, apparently quite out of nowhere, were notified prior to opening day that their Saratoga Special was no longer welcome on track.  The matter was resolved - I saw the paper in all of its usual locations - but was surely unnecessary, and shows you what happens when non-racing people who don't understand the local racing culture - of which the Special has surely become an integral part - populate the executive suite and make bad decisions in the name of 'business' while lacking the experience to even know what the consequences could be, no less consider them.

And then, there's that bell.  No, I'm not going to drop the matter, even though I'm apparently the only person in the world that's bothered by it. Let me clarify my position here: I am not advocating that the bell no longer be rung.  I agree that it's a hallowed tradition to ring it seven times 17 minutes to post of every race.  However, it is not tradition that the sound has to be blasted over the new and improved PA sound system (or even over the old and not-improved version of past years).  The beauty of the tradition of the pre-amplified bell, at least in my experience, was that anywhere one was standing at the track, be it at the top of the stretch, or out by the Big Red Spring getting wasted in what was the official pot-smoking area, one would hear it, somewhere off in the distance.  "Hark, the bell, there's 18 minutes to post."  (I've only learned in the last week that it's actually 17 minutes.)  It was really quaint and cool.  Having it pounded into one's inner being some 70 times a day is uncool and unnerving.  And it's contrary to what I'd always found charming about it.  So please, by all means, ring the bell.  But let the sound waves travel naturally, whisked around the track by the crisp Adirondack breeze.  Everyone will hear it. Unless they don't want to.  Turn the damn PA off.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Saratoga Opening Day Eve Notes and News

Martin Panza, NYRA's SR VP of Racing Operation, seems like quite the chatty guy.  I've seen him quoted in the press on a regular basis of late; talking about the success of the 5th of July card and his desire for more 'big days;' and discussing the racing at Saratoga, where they'll be less flat races (with the jumpers relegated to a pre-game show - or like a warm-up band - with an early post time) and an attempt to reduce the bottom-basement type races.  He sat for an extensive interview with Bob Ehalt which appears on, and entertained questions at the track on Wednesday along with CEO Chris Kay.

Panza has quickly taken charge, putting his stamp on the product - he tends to speak in the first person: "I'm" going to do this, "I" need to do that, "I" tinkered with the Whitney - and demonstrating a command of the off-track issues.  In the ESPN piece, he discusses the future of Aqueduct and Belmont, getting back in the Breeders' Cup mix (yeah, whatever), packaging stakes races for new TV sports networks, and trying to set up a Triple Turf Crown.  Or a Turf Triple Crown, I forget which.  There's also a long section about changing the Triple Crown format, which is a waste of space because nothing like that is happening anytime soon.  He's quickly fulfilled what he was hired to do - be the racing guy in an executive office increasingly filled with non-racing people, so that Kay can spout meaningless stuff like: “It is absolutely imperative we develop such a sustainable business plan because horse racing is so important to New York."  And to tell us how the new Director of Communications, John Durso Jr., is "like me, a fan of horse racing." Oh, man.

Having said that, I certainly don't agree with everything Panza is planning.  Despite the success of the Stars and Stripes program at Belmont, I'm not at all a believer that the occasional 'big days' with big-purse stakes races "hold the key to increasing racing's fan base," and believe that NYRA is missing the mark by not focusing on the vacant off-track betting market in NYC.  I don't see how increasing the purse of the Whitney will draw a single extra person to the track.  Fact is that every day at Saratoga has a big day feel, but it's because of the atmosphere and the (hopefully) big and competitive racing fields, whether they are stakes races or 20K claimers.  And I don't particularly agree that eliminating lower class races has anything to do with increasing the "quality" of racing; which to me is based purely on the bet-worthiness of races, no matter what kind of class the horses may or may not have.  But at least the man has a vision and a plan and is working aggressively to implement it. So we'll give him a chance and see what happens.

Regarding the Breeders' Cup, Panza is shooting to get back in the rotation late in the decade.  He excused them for ignoring New York, pointing out the instability at NYRA over the last few years. But the Breeders' Cup staged the event in Santa Anita one year even when the main track situation was in flux and one didn't even know what kind of dirt or plastic would be in place or when; and has continued to return there even though the dirt track that was eventually installed has been a freak show on the event days.  They can take the Breeders' Cup to Kentucky and run it in Mitch McConnell's backyard for all I care.  It's an insider event that has done absolutely nothing to further the game; in fact, it has turned what used to be the climactic fall racing season into a series of prep races.

No more inflated attendance figures on giveaway days as NYRA Chief Experience Office Lynn LaRocca announced the other day.  Excessive spinning will be limited to two extra vouchers at a time, in an attempt to prevent hoarding and to give more people a chance to get the items; and the extra vouchers sold will not count towards attendance.  So the phony crowd figures - to me one of the treasured traditions of Saratoga - will become a thing of the past.  (Maybe they can throw out the damn 18 17 minute bell as well [whatever, but I should know how many minutes by now, you'd think].)  That means that Durso and his communications department will be spending time issuing qualifiers as to why the attendance figures are down from last year; look for them to focus more on per-capita wagering than body counts.  It will be interesting to finally see how many people are really there on those days.

New TVs and picnic tables are promised for the backyard, though if it were up to me, I might have less TVs in order to force people to leave the backyard and actually go watch a horse race for a change!

In any event, and as opposed to many years in the past, the weather for opening weekend is supposed to be gorgeous.  Frankie Dettori is in town, the Toddster surely has a new wardrobe and his hair in place as he looks to dominate (again), and it looks like all systems are go!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

More Local Lawsuits As State Continues to Not Expand Casinos

 - On Tuesday, Governor Cuomo was asked about the impending casino closures in Atlantic City and Moody's downgrade of its outlook for the casino industry, and whether he was therefore concerned as "New York prepares to expand casinos."

It's funny sometimes with these occasional encounters that Cuomo has with the press corps....or I suppose in any similar situation with most any politician....that the reporters all seem to pick up on the same quotes - in this case: “The state is not building any casinos, and the state is not spending any money here......These are private companies which normally know what they are doing.....if they don’t, the market will tell them that," (which is a curious enough response in itself given that the question concerned those private companies that know what they are doing that are shuttering their businesses in Atlantic City) - and they ignore some of the best stuff.  You really have to go ahead and watch the full videos to get the full picture.

Here, when asked the above-mentioned question, the governor of New York went off on one of his rambling responses that may not quite reach the level of incoherency,  but which don't exactly give the impression that he's in command of all the facts (and makes you gasp in bewilderment that the man is mentioned as a possible candidate for president)....and delivered to reporters in a manner that may not quite reach the level of being condescending, but with the smug satisfaction of someone who believes that everybody believes everything he says.

"No," he responded.  "Because this is....the private market will decide to expand their casinos.  It's not the said the state will....has decided to expand its casinos.  We haven't.  First of all, we don't have any casinos.  We haven't decided to expand our casinos."

And, I'm like, what in heaven's name is this guy talking about??  First of all, we don't have any casinos.  Was that an attempt at humor?   We haven't decided to expand our casinos.  Seriously? He makes it sound as if he has just been an innocent bystander rather than the man who decided to expand casino gaming, and who is behind the whole sordid process!  Do we really have to get into a discussion here of the semantics of who exactly is expanding what?

Not going to waste my time.  We'll instead go on to another legal challenge to the local approval process required by the Gaming Commission (that I guess is not currently working to expand casinos) that were submitted along with the applications on June 30.  This one is taking place in Tyre, NY, where Wilmorite is hoping to build a $425 million facility just off Exit 41 of the NYS Thruway, north of the Finger Lakes about 50 miles west of Syracuse.  In a press release announcing the suit, Casino Free Tyre notes:
Actions by the Town of Tyre Board throughout the process to site and endorse the Wilmot casino, opposed by the majority of residents in the Town of Tyre, have been characterized by accommodation to casino developer Wilmorite’s wishes, time frames, behind-closed-doors interactions and private consultations, to the detriment of the citizens and environment of the Town they have sworn to protect.  The Town of Tyre Board has operated neither as public officers representing first and foremost the people of their town, nor as independent objective arbiters of information presented by both sides in order to arrive at fair, unbiased decisions.
The actions by the Town and ongoing ignoring of its residents and the law have left no other recourse than that which has now been taken to preserve the natural resources, rural and agricultural heritage, and citizen rights in our town.
The casino is to be named the Lago Resort and Casino; 'lago' being the Italian word for 'lake.'  So, as you might imagine, the Executive Summary is full of the usual stuff that these things are full of.
See this resort with an architectural design, style and ambiance that encompasses and highlights the majestic natural landscape of sprawling agricultural lands and picturesque lakes and shores.
And, the Summary notes that the site is "a good distance away from surrounding residential and agricultural areas, with plentiful green space on the property."

Well, some of the residents surely wouldn't agree with that last assertion.  The Petition, filed in the State Supreme Court in Seneca County, lists as the Petitioners several families who live near what would be the resort site. In fact, one of them, the Dawley family, lives on a parcel for which, according to the Petition, the "Northern boundary of the Casino Complex Site is also the southern boundary" of their property.  They are concerned about trespassers, the effect on wildlife, and that a casino "would substantially alter the character of their rural and agricultural neighborhood and community."

I hope the Dawleys don't mind, but I Google-Mapped their address which is included in the document. That would be their house on the right near the red marker.  Exit 41 of the Thruway, from which the Lago Resort would be located "steps from," is at the bottom left corner.  So I figure that the arrow should just about mark the spot.  Yeah, I'd be rather concerned about my little green paradise too.

Other Petitioners may not be quite as close as the Dawleys, but have a right to be equally concerned.  The Nearpass family "presently enjoy the seclusion, agricultural, and residential character" of the area.  The Morellis, who would be next door neighbors, fear that the casino would "destroy the privacy and seclusion that they presently treasure." Panning out to a wider view of the area, it's surely clear that a casino would drastically change the nature of the community.

Like the East Greenbush suit, the Tyre complaint concerns SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act); but unlike East Greenbush, which is being taken to task for not having taken that matter up in the required timely fashion, the Tyre action challenges the process by which the Town Board adopted a SEQRA Resolution.  In a nutshell, it contends that the Board did not make public a critical document which identified potential negative environmental impacts (to surface water, plants and animals, agricultural resources, aesthetic resources, transportation, energy, nighttime lighting, community plans and character); didn't consider the presence of a cemetery and a drumlin ("a unique glaciological landform") on the site; and didn't make the the Host Community Agreement and a host of other necessary approval documents available to the public in violation of the Public Officers Law.  Again, that's in a nutshell.  For more detail, you can read the Petition below.

Tyre Casino Petition

The group in Tuxedo led by lawyer Michael Sussman that we mentioned over the weekend has now filed their Article 78 action against the Town Board there.  Genting's proposed Sterling Forest Resort site is reported to be buffered by two miles of forest, so I don't know that there are any next door neighbors such as in Tyre. But the Petitioners there still cite environmental concerns, as well as, according to one resident behind the effort: "on grounds of social degradation, and as a practical matter that the way of life of this community will be dramatically changed.” [Sloatsburg Village Local News and Community Life]

Like in Tyre and in East Greenbush, the plaintiffs contend that the majority of residents actually oppose the casinos, and that the Town Board stealthily pushed through various approvals while bypassing processes required by the law.  That is certainly a common theme here.  Makes one wonder who these town boards are getting advice from.  We know that the one in East Greenbush has worked closely with lobbyist Morgan Hook and with Jimmy Feathers himself; but only because the meeting notes were obtained via an FOIL request and attached to the complaint.  Because of that convenient loophole that exempts lobbyists from having to report their activities in towns with populations of less than 50,000, we have no idea as to who is lobbying who or at what expense.  Not to mention exactly what is being offered to these board members behind the scenes. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Gaming Commission Chairman Avoids the Issues in College Rape Case

You may have read the front page article in the New York Times on Sunday regarding the case of a woman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges who accused three members of the football team of rape.  It's quite disturbing and graphic.  I'm not going to go into detail; here's the link.  After an on-campus hearing, the players were cleared of any wrongdoing.  The only reason I mention it on this site is because, as noted insistently by Teresa on her Twitter feed, the president of the school is Mark Gearan, who also happens to be the chairperson of the New York Gaming Commission.

At first, I wasn't sure exactly how or what to write about it.  Gearan was not quoted directly for the article, only a reference to his asserting that the school followed federal law.  (HWS is one of 55 school under federal investigation by the Department of Education for violating federal rules regarding sexual harassment).  There was drinking involved, and the accuser herself does not completely recall exactly what transpired.  And I have to say that the fact that the article was written by Walt Bogdanich gave me some pause, considering that he co-wrote some of the articles in the paper's misleading and biased Death and Disarray at America's Racetracks series.  When Gearan claims that "responses were either ignored or downplayed in the article," there is surely precedent for that from this writer.  Hey, that's what happens when a writer and/or newspaper distorts facts to fit their agenda; it calls the credibility of their subsequent work into question.

So, I was going to mention the reported, by the Times, incompetence of, and aggressiveness toward the accuser by, the panel that conducted the investigation; note that, as president, the buck stops at Gearan's desk for any such mishandling; point out that the same man ultimately responsible for what was reported to be a flawed process is now the head of the commission which regulates all racing and gaming in the state, and which has employed a panel to decide where four upstate casinos will be sited.  And call it a day.

Then I read Gearan's response to the article.  I think he should have left well enough alone.

In a message to the HWS Community, Gearan refers to a website that includes information that was provided to the Times reporter which is largely missing from the article.  Ah, here was his chance to support his claims that the article was distorted.  On said website, we're told:

Below are some of the points that were made to the New York Times that were either missing or downplayed in the story.

And then it proceeds to not address a single one of the key damning points of the article; Not. A. One. We're told about all the programs in place and planned for the future; it's noted that four students have been expelled for sexual misconduct in past cases; we're told that "out of respect for the privacy of the currently enrolled student who made the complaint," they can't discuss details of the case (but it was OK to disclose the accuser's identity to "dozens' of students? While the accused football players remain anonymous because they were cleared?); and we're fed a lot of fluff worthy of a corporate or politician's press release.

But there's nothing to explain or dispute the key assertions contained in the piece:  That the chairwoman of the panel did not share the medical report with the other two members - a sexual-assault nurse reported 'blunt force trauma within the last 24 hours indicating “intercourse with either multiple partners, multiple times or that the intercourse was very forceful."  That one of the panel members, who are required by federal law to have “adequate training or knowledge” for the task, was the director of the campus bookstore "who the school said had expressed an interest in serving."  That one panelist asked whether a witness "had seen the player’s penis in Anna’s vagina or if he had just seen them having sex." That the accuser was repeatedly interrupted by the panelists, preventing her from telling her story in a coherent way.  That it took five months to discipline one of the players for contacting her in violation of a strict no-contact order.  That the accused attackers conveniently changed their stories as the investigation went on.

I will take the lack of response to these accusations raised by the Times to mean that all of them are true as reported.  So, I will reiterate, more forcefully now, that the chairperson of the New York Gaming Commission oversaw a process at his full-time job which was flawed, most innocuously; if not downright tilted against the accuser.  In addition, his effort at deflecting attention from the substantive issues with what is nothing more than a flashy PR deke worthy of a corrupt New York State politician makes it quite clear that Gearan is (nearly) as adept of playing the political game as the man who appointed him to his position.  And that any false hope that some may, for some reason, still harbor that the process of selecting the casino sites will be free from politics as usual should be put aside for good.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Saturday Morning Casino News and Notes

An effort is underway to overturn the local approval for Genting's Tuxedo casino proposal; part of a drive to block any casino from being constructed in Orange County.  Lawyer Michael Sussman intends to file a motion in the state Supreme Court.  A meeting of the "casi-NO Orange" group took place on Thursday night. 

Dennis Glassberg of Woodridge said there needs to be an investigation into how Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials talked of a Catskills casino, and then Orange got into the mix. [Times Herald-Record, limited free access]
As we noted in this post, Cuomo went as far as taking his day-after-the-election victory lap in Sullivan County, where he stated: “I think it is going to fundamentally change the economy of the Catskills.”  So, one would think that, should the Catskills not get at least one if not both casinos slated for the region, Cuomo would be facing some angry voters when he's up for re-election in November.  If, that is, the casino winners are announced before election day.  Gaming Commission director Robert Williams stated last week that it was too early to say if the casino winners will be announced before or after the election.

I'd surely be willing to wager that it comes after the election.  An announcement beforehand can only have negative repercussions for Cuomo; he doesn't figure to really gain any votes based on the decisions, but voters who are angry because a casino either has or has not been sited in their town will surely take it out on him.  No, Cuomo is not going to lose to the GOP candidate Rob Astorino.  But he wants to score as big of a margin of victory as possible given his larger political ambitions.  And, as we've pointed out on numerous occasions, the siting board is made up of people with varying degrees of ties to the governor.  We expect that, one way or another, Cuomo will make his feelings known, and that this board will be compliant.

There is already a legal bid underway to overturn the local approval in East Greenbush for the Capital View casino planned by Saratoga Harness/Churchill Downs.  The suit is partly based on the fact that the developers went ahead with the application without first having obtained an environmental review as required by SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act), as we explained in this post.  In a column in the Albany Times Union the other day,  James Flanigan, a former North Greenbush supervisor, discusses potential environmental issues that could doom the project
The proposed site for a casino and multi-story hotel is on a parcel over an aquifer, containing federal wetlands, adjacent to a Girl Scout camp, near an elementary school, zoned for low-density residential use and on a narrow residential street that dumps traffic onto an already congested section of state Route 4......Converting open fields to parking lots and rooftops will generate storm water that could inundate residences, shopping centers and neighboring communities.
He also notes that the developers treated the project "as an elaborate public relations effort," noting the hiring of Morgan Hook from the prestigious and powerful lobbying firm SKDKnickerbocker.  We saw Hook's name in the meeting notes attached as Exhibit B to the Save East Greenbush lawsuit (also discussed in this post), with the notation that the PR team will "take the heat," and that they should "do just one" public meeting - "any more continues to promote 'negative side.'"

It's surely no coincidence that Hook and SKDKnickerbocker ended up on the Capital View team.  Previously, he was the spokesperson for Destination Saratoga, the short-lived organization funded by Saratoga Harness to promote a casino there.  The group told Saratoga residents just how horribly bad for the city it would be if a casino was awarded anywhere else in the region.  But then, of course, James Featherstonhaugh, the partner leading the casino bid for the company, had no compunction about picking up and bidding to be that casino located elsewhere in the region that would so damage the town economically. No matter to Feathers if it was to be located near a girl scouts camp and a school in a place described by opponents as a 'nice little residential town;' one with an obviously passionate groundswell of revulsion to the idea.

It's quite apparent from the Exhibit B notes that Feathers was personally and intimately involved with the town board's effort to control and manipulate the messaging; for example, addressing the "myths" of casinos ("Biggest type of addict is sports gamblers"). Surely wouldn't be surprised if it was his and/or Hook's idea to hold the resolution vote in a room far too small to accommodate those who wished to speak out against it.

While I surely hope that commenter Bonnie L, who, along with another reader, left a thoughtful comment on the last post regarding their concerns about a casino in East Greenbush, is correct in that the board will "do their due diligence in examining all materials they delivered in a fair, unbiased manner," I surely have my doubts that that will be the case.  It's been my contention all along that Cuomo cut a deal with the New York Gaming Association to gain their support for the referendum (they were for it before they were against it before they were for it), and that Feathers, the president of the group at the time, is therefore a mortal lock to get a license for his Saratoga Harness group, be it in Newburgh or East Greenbush.  As pointed out above, the siting board is made up of gentlemen likely to be amenable to whatever the governor wants and needs.

 - In the Executive Summary for Greenetrack's proposed casino near Stewart International Airport in New Windsor, NY....after stating how they "believe in the local community" that this Alabama-based company doesn't know from a hole in the wall.....they tout the presence of Michael Malik, with "more than 25 years of experience as a casino developer," on their team.  "Mr. Malik...directed a ballot effort to bring casino gaming to Detroit, Michigan."  Partly as a result of his efforts, there are three casino resort facilities in the city that has filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. So, quite clever of Greenetrack to point that out to the Gaming Commission.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Casino Executive Summaries Lay It On Thick

In 1777 the British Army devised a plan to split the colonies and end the American War for Independence.  They split New England from the rest of the colonies by taking control of Albany, New York and the Hudson River.  The British efforts eventually ended at the Battle of Saratoga, but the Capital District is no less strategically located today.  At the crossroads of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, the Capital District is the gateway to the Mohawk Valley and the Adirondacks.  
So, what better place could there be for a casino!  This history lesson is brought to you by Saratoga Harness and Churchill Downs. It's the opening of the Executive Summary of their casino application; one of 17 such documents, one for each casino application, released on Tuesday by the New York Gaming Commission. I've read through just a few of them so far, but I think I get the idea.  They discuss actual casino gambling a lot less than they do about wholesome family fun, how many jobs they'll create, their grand but tasteful architectural plans, and how they will single-handedly lift long-suffering communities out of poverty.

But they all have their different style and points of emphasis; and each one I've read so far has included at least one notable point of attention (assuring that I will indeed get around to reading all of them before too long). Caesar's, hoping to build in partnership with David Flaum in Woodbury, notes that it has developed a "new style of destination casino," facing outward instead of being inward and "walled off," and promises that Caesars New York will "make use of natural light and sweeping views of nearby Bear Mountain." They also note that their Las Vegas casino has attracted entertainment names the likes of Britney Spears and Celine Dion (and note that Caesars is not amongst the ten developers who have signed an agreement with the Fairgame theater group).

Genting - whose Executive Proposal for their proposed Sterling Forest resort in Tuxedo has, for some reason, large sections redacted - sure doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to articulating their marketing strategy!  They note their proximity to NYC, where there are 11 million tourists annually, "including more than 540,000 Chinese." And, regarding the nearby Woodbury Commons retail outlet mall:
"40% of the sales revenue of Woodbury Commons comes from Asian tourists, who not only have a high propensity to shop but also enjoy full casino gaming.  The Resort can easily develop marketing programs to encourage these visitors to the Resort, adding more exciting experiences to their visits."  
You can't make this stuff up, folks. Well, you can.  But we don't have to. Perhaps, in their efforts to lure those "Chinese" who so enjoy casino gambling, Genting will include "a replica of the Great Wall, exhibits of terra-cotta warriors, and even live pandas" as they plan for their Resorts World Las Vegas.

In the Executive Summary for Jeff Gural's Tioga Downs racino, it is noted that "existing Video Lottery Terminals will be converted to traditional slot machines within 90 days."  That would effectively terminate any payments to the harness racing side based on gaming revenue, and lock in their revenues at 2013 levels, plus or minus an adjustment for CPI, thus shutting them out of all the growth that is promised.  And that is why the horsemen at Monticello are making their long and lonely stand.  It's something that horsemen at Yonkers and NYRA are going to have to deal with at some point, be it in the seven years that we're told that the downstate racinos have to wait; or, more likely, soon after casino gambling comes to the Meadowlands.

Back to the Saratoga Harness/Churchill summary (for their proposed Capital View resort in East Greenbush) - while most of the applicants used the full four pages allowed by the Gaming Commission, Saratoga and Churchill wrapped it all up in a succinct two.  They didn't even bother posturing about responsible gaming as the others did.  Didn't waste any time talking about generous charitable giving to their local community, as opposed to Jeff Gural and the Wilmotte Group (Traditions Glen Resort in Tyre).

But what it lacks in length is made up for with the usual nonsense (as well as at least one typo and some sloppy writing).  "Breathtaking views" of Albany, and "the easternmost of all the proposed casino sites" (Huh?). "Artfully designed to celebrate the familiar forms and images recalled by the Dutch heritage in which we are immersed, while revitalizing and reinterpreting those same images in an unexpectedly fresh and contemporary fashion that speaks to the optimism of our future."  (Do you think they write this stuff with a straight face? )  "The Baseball Hall of Fame, the Olympic Center at Lake Placid, the thrill of climbing Mount Marcy, the Erie Canal, Howe Caverns, one could go on endlessly about the attractions available in the Capital Region of New York and it is our intention to shamelessly promote our home and our state."  (Yeah.  I'm so sure they will.)

And then there's this:
Some may argue that the Capital District is doing well, and by some standards it is.  But one need look no further than the cities of Albany and Troy to see the heartbreaking poverty that a project such as our own can help to alleviate.  The City of Albany with a population 97,856 has 25.4 percent of its citizens living below the poverty line. The City of Troy with a population 50,129 has an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent and 25.9 percent of its citizens below the poverty line."
Bleak numbers to be sure, heartbreaking indeed.  What I also find to be heartbreaking is seeing the grim faces of the people sitting in a lonely trance at the slot machines at Aqueduct and the Saratoga harness track. That's the other side that you don't hear about in this sort of propaganda. It's heartbreaking to me that states like New York have come to depend so heavily on people gambling their money away in order to conduct their business, provide education and basic services to their population.  The pictures we see of young affluent-looking people smiling and laughing as they enjoy a hot night out on the town are a lie.

Of course these casinos will create jobs (even given the loss of jobs elsewhere as residents divert their spending to gambling) and generate revenue for the host communities.  It is with some mixed feelings that I've opposed their creation, given the utter desperation of the towns in the Catskills that have, for so, so long, seen them as a way out of decades of economic stagnation.  But these facilities cater to the most vulnerable and addicted amongst us, and do so heartlessly, nearly 24 hours a day, despite the lip service paid towards responsible gaming, ha. The 1,000 permanent jobs that Capital View promises to create could only make a dent in the kind of widespread heartbreak that they describe; and a small one at that in neighboring cities such as Troy.  Any general uplift of the region due to revenue that flows to the state is surely speculative.  It seems like nothing more than crass exploitation to tout the misery of the unemployed and impoverished in order to gain an advantage in what amounts to a billion dollar corporate sweepstakes.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Casino Bidders Pay ($11 Million) to Play

Here's the report by the NY Public Interest Research Group which details the $11 million spent, in 2012-13, by the players in the casino sweepstakes on lobbying and campaign donations .

It's surely not a surprise that Genting, and other companies related to its CEO KT Lim, involved in three separate bids (two Orange County bids for Genting, and the Concord proposal by Empire/EPR), led the way, at $2.47 million for lobbying and nearly $1 million on campaign contributions.  In addition to those sums, Empire Resorts itself spent another $665,000 on lobbyists.  You can see the complete lists on pages 3 and 4 of the document above; the list of contribution recipients on page 5, and the lucky lobbyists on page 7.
The single largest recipient of casino companies’ donations was the New York Jobs Now Committee, a casino-backed PAC which lobbied in support of the passage of the statewide ballot referendum that legalized casino gambling last fall. The committee received $1.9 million over the two-year period. [Capitol NY]
Jeff Gural, bidding for the Region Five license at Tioga Downs, is second on the list of campaign contributors at just over $700,000, no doubt in an effort to get the referendum passed; he was the most visible of the racino owners actively involved in that effort. 

Note that, due to a rather gigantic loophole in the disclosure laws, these totals do not include lobbying in cities or towns with populations less than 50,000; only Schenectady amongst the prospective host locations has a population great than that.  So, all of the lobbying that went on to gain the necessary local approvals, of which we can be sure there was quite a bit, is not reported here. Nice.

The report notes that "many bidders spent through vaguely-named holdings" in an effort to mask their true origins.
Flaum Management [involved in the Caesars bid in Woodbury, and the Hard Rock effort in Rensselaer -ed.] contributed through companies such as 12225 Jefferson, LP; 1999 MT RB LLC; 2250 Brighton-Henrietta, LLC; Edgemere Development Inc.; Onondaga Galleries LLC; and The Hague Corporation
And NYPIRG most pointedly points out that there would have been no campaign contributions from bidding companies (and their vaguely-named holdings) if not for the last-minute removal from the casino-enabling law of a clause prohibiting such spending.
Despite being touted in a press release by Governor Cuomo and widely covered by the press in subsequent weeks, this provision was quietly removed soon before the final version of the bill was voted on. The first media report revealing this change was not revealed until 7:39 p.m. in the evening on the day the bill passed, several hours after the Assembly had voted on it. There was so little fanfare behind this decision that, according to one Assemblymember, many members of his house were completely unaware this had been removed before casting votes in favor.
 At the time, Pat Bailey reported on the local CBS6 blog:
When asked about the removal of the language a representative from the Governor's office said all four leaders must agree on the terms of deals cut. I called the offices of each of the three leaders who regularly meet with Cuomo to hash out deals but I did not [receive] comment from anyone except from Speaker Sheldon Silver's office who told me "we were not opposed to the provision in the bill".
 Gee, can't imagine why a bunch of politicians would have that nasty little provision quietly removed!

 - The two remaining slots on the Gaming Facility Location Board have finally been filled, and - another big surprise here - they are reported to be "two more men with close political ties to Gov. Andrew Cuomo." [NYSNYS News]  Dennis Glazer is the husband of Westchester DA Janet DiFiore, whom Cuomo appointed to head the Joint Commission on Public Ethics in 2011 (she resigned a year later prior to running for re-election).  Kevin Law, like fellow Location Board member Stuart Rabinowitz, was appointed by Cuomo as co-chairman of the Long Island chapter of his Regional Economic Development Council.  Law, who at one time worked with top Cuomo aide Larry Schwartz, has periodically issued statements in support of Cuomo initiatives (and one in favor of the governor's working relationship with GOP Senator Dean Skelos).  And, most tellingly, Law had been prominently mentioned as a possible Cuomo running mate for his November re-election bid.

I don't believe that either man would fall in the same category of 'Cuomo crony' as prior appointees William Thompson or Paul Francis.  I detailed their history with the governor in this post.  But still, four of the five members have either worked with/for, or been appointed to a present post by, the reigning governor of New York.  So it would seem as if Cuomo surely has a friendly audience that will no doubt be receptive to his wishes.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Big Saturday at Belmont Promises to Bring More Big Days

Hope everyone had a great holiday weekend.  The Head Chef and I are still down at my mom's place in sweltering Florida, so we were not around for the Stars and Stripes event at Belmont on Saturday.  But I understand it was a spectacular weather day, and the crowd was announced as 11,118 (a bit less than what was reported in the press, but that's the number in NYRA's press release).  An experienced observer who was there noted that there was a T-shirt giveaway, and opined that spinners may have slightly inflated the crowd; he guessed closer to 10,000.   But, we quibble.  There were just 5,047 on hand for the Saturday after the 4th of July last year.  (Though, while the crowd more than doubled, the on-track wagering was up only 56%, indicating that there were a fair number of freeloaders partying out in the backyard.)  So, while Tom Pedulla noted in the NY Times that the crowd was "below expectations," I'd say it was far closer to being the "resounding success" touted by NYRA.

It was sure as heck more than I thought would be there.  In a recent post, I snarkily, and wrongly, dismissed the notion that a couple of million dollar purses and the presence of a less-than-inspiring cast of foreign horses would attract many more customers.  So, good job by NYRA there; including their issuing of free admission to those who bought a seat for the Belmont Stakes.

And the successful day - over $18 million in total wagering - will no doubt lead to more of the "big days."  'Oh, for joy,' says the guy who's not a real big fan of the big days with the plethora of graded stakes and who couldn't care less about foreign horses shipping in.  Personally, I believe NYRA should be concentrating on filling the void left by NYCOTB by working feverishly towards establishing attractive off-track wagering facilities throughout the city rather than striving for the occasional big attendance day on track.  But it's hard to argue with success, or with seeing the old plant hopping.  So Sr. VP of Racing Operations Martin Panza promised more of the same.

"There certainly are a lot more opportunities for people to do something. So for me it’s trying to narrow down big days and narrow down holidays and try to concentrate on those days, provide people with good experience at the track and hope that they will come back on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. It’s going to be a slow process, so to me it’s try to do big events, try to do it right and try to produce product on certain days because it’s hard. You’re limited with what you can do.”
“Racing needs to reinvent itself,” Panza said. “People want to see a good product and they want to be entertained. That’s the way we can do it.” [NY Daily News]
In the abovelinkedto News article, Panza also had some comments on Belmont Stakes day.  He noted that 36,000 people came by train, and said that NYRA needed to work with the LIRR to transport them in a more orderly fashion.  He basically blamed the concession company for the food and drink problems; and those long delays getting out of the parking lot? "We need to work better with the local police departments to make sure the plans put in place stay in place for the day and how can we get people out of here better.”  Ah, so it was the cops' fault, should have known.

 - Interesting article in the Times Herald-Record about the ongoing "we're poorer than you" PR debate between Sullivan and Orange County in their bids to attract one or both of the casino licenses designated for that region. Sullivan County officials commissioned a report which concluded:
 Sullivan has the lowest percentage of high school and college graduates, lowest median income, highest unemployment rate and worst health out of six counties examined in the study, including Orange and Ulster.  “It is clear from this study that Sullivan County will circulate the most money the fastest, and have the biggest impact on New York State's economy.”
But Orange County supporters point to the bleak conditions in Newburgh, and furthermore:
The vastly bigger population in Orange means more poor and unemployed people, despite the county's higher incomes and lower unemployment rate.  In other words, Sullivan may be poorer by percentages, but more people need jobs in Orange.

State Department of Labor statistics for May showed that Orange had more than four times as many unemployed residents as Sullivan, and that the jobless total for the City of Newburgh and neighboring towns of Newburgh and New Windsor alone (2,500) was higher than that of all of Sullivan (2,200).
And, regarding those proposed sites in more affluent areas in the southern part of the  county, Orange supporters contend that their locations near NYC will translate into more revenue which will benefit areas throughout the neighboring areas.  The letter released last month by the Gaming Commission made clear that those benefits would "have to provide a considerably greater overall direct and residual economic benefit to the host municipality and surrounding region than a smaller project sited in a disadvantaged region."

This accompanying piece ranks the Catskills and Orange sites in approximate order of impoverishment, with the Concord, in Thompson (Catskills), being the worst - 34% of the 6,725 residents below the poverty line - and Tuxedo (Orange), the site of one of Genting's two proposals and the one, of all the bids, closest to NYC, the least worst (median income over $85,000 and a 30 minute drive from the nearest concentration of poverty).  So, good luck with that bid, Genting.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

New NYRA Communications Chief Has Super Experience

I'm curious as to whether it was the first-ever decision for John Durso Jr. as NYRA's new Director of Communications and Media Relations to have the press release announcing his hiring sent out via email at 4:17 on a 4th of July which fell on a Friday to lead off a big summer holiday weekend.  There surely can't be more than one or two better times and days this year to put out a press release that you don't want anyone to see.  That would make sense from the perspective of John Durso, Jr.  He might not want to have to answer all those questions about how his prior job as Senior Director and Chief Spokesperson for NJ Transit would possibly make him qualified for this position.

Well, in the press release, Durso tells us that he is familiar with the sport. 

"As a native Long Islander who grew up with live racing at Belmont and the former Roosevelt Raceway, and as a longtime Capital District resident who spent numerous summers at Saratoga, the chance to join this world-renowned thoroughbred franchise is the thrill of a lifetime."
And, as it turns out, Durso is actually not without relevant experience for this job.  After all, his term at NJ Transit included the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands earlier this year, when a crush of fans attempting to get to and from the game via the railroad made for a mass transit nightmare. Sound familiar?  As opposed to the Belmont Stakes, after which most of the complaints concerned leaving the events, the biggest Super Bowl crush came as fans packed Secaucus Junction station to board trains, after passing through security, headed for the game.  It seems as if NJ Transit vastly underestimated the amount of fans who would be taking the train despite the urging of stadium and public officials to do so.  At least one writer, Star Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine, anticipated the crush.
In December, Clift accompanied me as I took a look at that rail link on a ride to the season’s final Giants game. It didn’t look good, and afterward I phoned NJ Transit spokesman John Durso Jr. and asked him how the agency would handle Super Bowl-sized crowds.

Durso insisted ridership would be only about 12,000, compared with about 8,000 for a regular game. NJ Transit officials stuck with that 12,000 figure, stating that at most it might reach 15,000. The real number turned out to exceed 30,000.
Oops.  It was widely reported that several people collapsed while waiting in sweltering, overcrowded conditions.
Witnesses reported seeing emergency medical workers pushed their way through the overheated crowd to treat the people at the station Sunday.
As more trains arrived, police tried to thin the sweating, jostling crowd by spreading people across the platform.  Initial fan calls of “Seahawks” and “Broncos” gave way to angry shouts of “New Jersey, your Super Bowl sucks!” [WCBS News]
Durso and NJ Transit, however, steadfastly denied that anybody needed medical attention.  What's more, Durso "dismissed questions" as to what NJ Transit might have done better; and, in a rather impressive and brazen display of PR chutzpah, he emphasized that NJ Transit had set a new record “by safely and efficiently” transporting 32,900 customers by rail from MetLife Stadium to Secaucus Junction. [The Record]

I would guess that some people would disagree with that assessment.
Brown, director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University, said that when he exited the stadium, he found himself standing in front of an enormous crowd with no clear plan and no one to direct them.  “People started screaming ‘Can somebody help us!” Brown said. “It was horrifying.”
Try as I may, I cannot find any statement from NJ Transit apologizing or expressing regret at the ordeal that some fans had to endure.  Given the lack of any comment of that sort from NYRA management following the Belmont, it would seem that Durso will fit right in.

So it looks like NYRA has its man.  (As in, man.  White man.  Chief Experience Officer Lynn LaRocca is the only woman to be hired as an executive since the now all-white male New NYRA board was appointed.) Of course, his above statement about the Super Bowl calls his press release quote into question.  After all, he only says that he grew up on Long Island where there was live racing at Belmont and Roosevelt, not that he actually went there; and that he spent summers at Saratoga.  He could be talking about going to see the Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC for all we know.  In any event, his hiring comes about a month too late.  Had Durso been around during the Belmont, perhaps he would have told us of the safe and efficient experience provided by NYRA and the MTA, pointing out that nobody died.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Tide is Turned on Atlantic City Casinos

The prospect of a casino at the Meadowlands has gotten a big boost with the sudden support for the idea by the New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

Sweeney’s at odds with the South Jersey Democrat’s public statements in which he has adamantly defended a five-year moratorium, until early 2016, on any discussion of casino gambling in the state beyond Atlantic City. The motivation for that ban, developed in partnership with Governor Christie, was to give the struggling seaside resort a chance to get back on its feet.

But on Wednesday, Sweeney said there is a “very real possibility” that a statewide proposal on expanded gaming could be placed on the November 2015 ballot. [The Record]
This however does not mean that Sweeney and Christie are abandoning the beleaguered gaming city on the Jersey shore.  The idea is that a portion of the revenues would be earmarked for Atlantic City.
Former Atlantic City casino executive Steve Norton, with roots in the industry dating back to the dawn of gaming there in 1978, estimated that the state could collect $300 million to $350 million annually in taxes from a Meadowlands casino. Norton said that if half of that money went toward trying to revive Atlantic City, “it could turn the tide” of declining visitors.
Well, indeed, talk about turning the tide!  It used to be that Atlantic City casinos subsidized the purses at the Meadowlands until Christie put a halt to that when he wasn't busy illegally diverting Port Authority money to subsidize unrelated work on the Pulaski Skyway.  Now we're talking about the Meadowlands - albeit gaming other than horse racing - subsidizing Atlantic City.  The casinos there fought that purse subsidy tooth and nail, and now they're on the other side, how does that feel?

But, really?  Exactly how is such an influx of money going to save the struggling casino business there?  Are they going to build waterparks, dinosaur theaters, and scenic ponds?  Seems to me that the only answer to Atlantic City's woes would be to put all of the existing and future casinos and slots parlors in Pennsylvania and Delaware and New York out of business.  As if it is not already being hurt enough by all the existing competition in the area, a second casino in Philadelphia remains a possibility (Penn National withdrew their bid this week, citing the "ongoing gaming saturation in the mid-Atlantic region.")  And any casinos sited anywhere in the Catskills/Orange County region would be within easy reach of millions of New Jersey residents. 

Speaking of that gaming saturation in the mid-Atlantic region, slot machine revenue in Pennsylvania dropped 6% in June as compared to last year.
Overall gross slot machine revenue for the fiscal year has slipped 4.5 percent, according to figures released today by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. [Philly .com]
 - This is the press release from Empire Resorts regarding the submission of their application to build, in partnership with EPR Properties, a $1 billion casino facility at the old Concord site.  However, as we mentioned the other day, that sum depends on where the other Region One casino ends up going.  As in, not in Orange County.  In the company's own words:
The size of the project, including the amount of capital necessary to complete it, will vary based upon the number and location of competitive licenses issued by New York State in our region.
The casino itself would be called the Montreign Resort Casino; and the entire site, including all the non-casino goodies, will be referred to as Adelaar.  The release also notes that this project already has SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) approval (which the East Greenbush project, for one, does not), "making this application a front runner that can rapidly deliver the jobs and economic opportunity the Town of Thompson and Sullivan County so richly deserve."

 - The Times Herald-Record reports of a "private, marathon session" between the Town of Woodbury and Caesars Entertainment (which is closing its Showboat casino in Atlantic City) that lead to a 23 page "Host Community Benefits Agreement" [pdf] with respect to the company's proposed casino in that Orange County town. The town board approved it on June 25, leading to a support resolution which passed 5-0 and allowed Caesars to submit its application five days later.   
Included are initial estimates by town officials of almost $1 million for police cars, a court renovation and other capital costs, and about $3 million a year for more police officers and other personnel. The annual expenses would rise by 3 percent each year.

Caesars has agreed to abide by whatever cost determinations the Planning Board makes. Town officials, on the other hand, are entitled to appeal those decisions through arbitration if they disagree.

Caesars, one of eight applicants competing for a casino license in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties, also has promised to give the Town of Woodbury $1 million a year for four years, to be spent however the town chooses to alleviate negative effects or for "the betterment" of the community. [Times Herald-Record, limited free access]
The town also scored hiring preferences and ongoing job training for its residents, a pledge to annually source $5 million worth of goods and services from local businesses (including snow removal, florists, and caterers), mitigate traffic problems, construct two all-weather playing fields, build a tree buffer between the casino and local residences (consistent with the requirements of SEQRA, not yet finalized for this project), and a commitment to promote "responsible gaming" (ha ha).  The latter includes keeping billboards at least 500 feet from schools (that's all?) and "airing the casino industry's first broadcast advertising campaign to promote responsible gaming to increase awareness of toll-free helpline numbers." 

So, this town seems to have done pretty well for themselves, both in getting money and, with the responsible gaming nonsense, trying to relieve some of their guilt as they're counting their money while residents become addicted gamblers.  It's an interesting look at just what kind of inducements these companies were willing to offer - and what the towns are able to extract/demand - in return for the local support resolution, required by the Gaming Commission, as the June 30 application deadline quickly approached.  I'd guess that other host agreements have similar goodies for the cities and towns.  In fact, if other companies have also pledged to air "the casino industry's first broadcast advertising campaign to promote responsible gaming" (the reason there haven't been any is probably because there is nothing responsible about casino gambling), it could prompt quite a frenzied race to the airwaves!

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Fan Advisory Council "Piles on" NYRA Over Belmont Day

James Odato reports on the Capitol Confidential blog on the letter sent to NYRA by the NYS Racing Fan Advisory Council complaining about Belmont day.  For one thing, and once again, why is Odato writing about this on a blog otherwise almost exclusively devoted to state politics? Would he have reported on the letter if it was complimenting NYRA for doing a great job?  (Then again, would the Racing Fan Advisory Council - a group sorely in need of an acronym so let's call them RFAC - have written such a letter in the first place?)

The letter recounts all of the woes of that day, and says that they do so "not in an effort to 'pile on,'" though that's exactly how it comes across. However, NYRA has no one to blame but themselves for that; as bad as Belmont day was botched, they have similarly botched the aftermath by failing to have Chris Kay and/or other senior executives address it in a serious way.  It was left to poor Jon Forbes of the communications department to act as a "NYRA spokesman" and tell Odato that no, they didn't actually run out of food, it just took a really really long time to replenish some vendors out in the grandstand and backyard (and surely not in the VIP areas in the clubhouse).  Forbes also gives us some stats to suggest that they did in fact have more concessions open than in previous Triple Crown years, which raises the question of exactly how many more people than the announced attendance were actually there.

The RFAC then goes on to undermine their letter by citing this "key recommendation" from their 2012 Report (capital letter is theirs) as being amongst those that could have helped avoid many of the problems if only NYRA had listened to them:

The experience should be improved by lowering the prices of food, beverages and souvenirs, as opposed to raising prices for such items.
Oh yeah, they'll do that.  Name me one other venue in any sport or any entertainment event of any kind that lowers their concession prices on a big day.  If you want people to take you seriously, then come up with serious suggestions.  Besides, the concession prices were hardly out of line the way things are these days, and exactly how would the problems of long lines and delayed supplies have been addressed if beer was a couple of bucks cheaper?

The letter also notes that "NYRA obviously spent significant funds to hire various entertainers, including LL Cool J, Dee Roscioli, Bernie Williams, and Frank Sinatra Jr., to provide brief performances," and suggests that the money could have been better spent otherwise.  For one thing, I highly doubt that they had to pay that group of B-listers (at best) enough for those brief performances to have made a real difference.  Furthermore, maybe if they had spent more money to bring top shelf entertainment (as was suggested would be the case when the whole silly BIG Belmont day idea was announced), and figured out some place for them to perform where people who hadn't spent a lot of money to sit in seats could have actually seen them, then maybe they would have been distracted and not as interested in eating or drinking.

In those ways, the letter belies the grand sense of self-importance with which the RFAC goes on to virtually demand that Kay and Chief Experience Officer Lynn LaRocca attend a forum to be held on an unspecified day at Saratoga.  Given the way that NYRA has responded to the outcry about Belmont day thus far, I wouldn't hold my breath if I was them.

 - It's the 4th of July weekend coming up, and what better way to celebrate the anniversary of the nation's independence than to hold a Stars and Stripes Festival (on the 5th) highlighted by two faux Grade 1 turf invitationals featuring a bunch of B-list foreign runners?  Not a Group 1 winner amongst them. Now that's $2.25 million that could have been better spent enhancing the fan experience on Belmont day.