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Thursday, July 02, 2015

A Tale of Six Trees

Mike MacAdam covers horse racing and local sports for The Gazette in Schenectady.  He's an excellent writer, and a really nice guy too....and I say the latter not only because he wrote so eloquently about impending changes at Saratoga, thereby saving me the trouble of having to write a post on the topic while the Head Chef and I are away on our annual summer extravaganza down at my mom's house near Sarasota, FL.  In case you missed it last week, here is Mike's column (embedded here via Twitter with the hope that you'll be able to bypass the newspaper's paywall).

This column, written after Chris Kay's remarks at the annual preview press conference last week, sums it all up perfectly, from the price gouging to the "creepy corporate Disneyspeak" defending it, to the proliferation of "pockets of exclusivity in what historically has been one of the most democratic places in the country."  It's just perfect, so please give it a read. Not at all necessary for me to say much more.

But yes, as you might have guessed, I do have a little to add.  It's obvious that Mike, and the aggrieved customers quoted in the column, are personally offended by such changes.  And I know that all of us who have, year after year,  had the privilege of attending this historic track, of which all of us are indeed "possessive," feel the same way.  So please don't take it the wrong way when I say that the Head Chef and I feel even more personally affected than some others may be.  And that's because the area behind the Carousel is where we have stationed ourselves for many, many years.  It's bad enough that the main floor Carousel is being turned into a premium sports bar (for which one has to pay to sit at tables).  But that picnic area behind it, where we have spent so many wonderful days, will now be significantly altered - and reduced - by a "Red Jacket" museum. Not sure exactly where it is, but Teresa was there and informed me that it's "very close" to where we usually sit - "a little to the south." Don't know my north from south around there, but "very close" is very close enough.  (In fact, while I had relented to the Head Chef's wishes regarding going to Saratoga this summer, this news has made even her hesitant.)

And that's right, this area is being compromised for a museum.   Don't want to speak for all of you, but this horseplayer, in over 35 years of Saratoga, has attended the existing National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame across the street from the track exactly once; and I don't really remember a thing about it.  Seems to me this new museum will be more for the "guests" than for the horseplayers who support this whole endeavor. Not sure exactly what the point or purpose of plopping a museum in the middle of a track is....will they be charging admission?  While supposedly a tribute to Saratoga legends, as Tom Noonan succinctly put it, "one suspects it is really a tribute to Chris Kay."

But what might be the most upsetting aspect of this whole sorry affair to me - more even than the price increases, infringement of popular picnic areas, and the hypocrisy of this NYRA - is the fact that six grandiose trees have been cut down in order to make way for a museum.  Now, I wouldn't quite put myself in the tree-hugging category, but those magnificent, cloud-scraping trees that populate the backyard of the track are, to me, an integral part of the experience; a major, if not the major, contributor to the majesty and tranquility of the place.

Many a time have I drifted into a sedate state of meditative bliss lying back in my chair staring up at them. (True, at times while under the influence of various mind-altering drugs conducive to such a state, but still...)  To take trees out of Saratoga is like removing flamingos from Hialeah, the San Gabriel mountains from the backdrop at Santa Anita, or the cries of "bloodclot" from Aqueduct.

And what makes this defilement of the sacred grounds of the Spa even more ponderous is this: before he came to NYRA, Chris Kay was the Chief Operating Officer of an environmental group, The Trust for Public Land! Its mission is "Creating Parks and Protecting Land for People."
We protect the places people care about and create close-to-home parks—particularly in and near cities.
 And while the organization generally deals with larger and more urban areas than is Saratoga, the inconsistency between his mission there and his actions here are quite obvious.  While at Trust for Public Land, Kay used the word "parks" as much as he presently uses the word "guest." Yet, now at NYRA, the grand park - is there another way to put it? - that constitutes the backyard of Saratoga is readily sacrificed,  whether for profit or for vanity, solely at NYRA's whim; correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall any public input regarding the removal of these natural treasures.  And I mean, I thought the state now owns the land??!!??

Many people feel as if Chris Kay drips with insincerity when he talks in glowing terms about our sport, whose jewel track he has come to be entrusted with.  Considering and contrasting his past position with his present actions may serve to put his words now in an even harsher context. We better hope that Kay does not go on to run a racino.  He may decide that his guests are better served without any pesky racetracks nearby.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Cap This

Here's the latest bit of hilarity from NYRA CEO Christopher Kay (at least before Wednesday's board meeting - with this being posted a few hours prior - which is likely to include even more yuks):

"Anyone familiar with Saratoga Race Course will understand the impact of the promotional giveaway days in influencing attendance numbers, which renders inaccurate a direct comparison to today’s gate numbers.

Two years ago, Saratoga hosted four giveaway days and recorded each “spin through the gates” by guests to secure multiple souvenirs as paid attendance. Each of these days yielded an average attendance of anywhere between 50,000 and 55,000. Contrast this to last season when the New York Racing Association discouraged spinners, resulting in an accurate promotional day count of between 25,000 and 30,000 guests during each of the four giveaway days – as opposed to totals of between 100,000 to 120,000 “phantom” guests for the entire Saratoga meet in the prior year. And data from earlier years indicated even larger discrepancies due to the counting of spinners." [Saratogian]
This coming from the man who presided over an equally - if not an even more insidious - padding of attendance numbers last summer, when season pass holders were counted as attending every day of the meet whether they were there or not.  With a total of 6,370 passes sold (though not from day 1), and 40 days in the meet, you can do the math to determine what the potential exaggeration was last year. May, or may not, have been 100,000 to 120,000, but I'd guess that it wasn't tremendously far off those numbers. Of course, Kay did not allude to that little bit of accounting wizardry.  This goes squarely in the category of you can't. make. this. stuff. up.  And I say it's possibly even more insidious than the spinning numbers because, at the same time, this NYRA regime was trying to tell us just how transparent they are.

Kay also announced that, should American Pharoah run at Saratoga - possibly in the Jim Dandy on August 1 - attendance at Saratoga would be capped at an unspecified number.

Oh boy.  Well, as you probably know by now, NYRA capped the attendance on Belmont Day at 90,000, though, as I contended in the last post, they quite obviously didn't even manage to sell that many admissions; all one needed to do was look at StubHub the morning of the race to know that was the case. (And that, by the way, was a major fail.  Can you imagine if the prior regime couldn't sell out a Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown possibility with a limit of only 90,000?   As was the case last year - and as they bragged to the NYRA Board - NYRA saved money on marketing, letting the news-worthiness of the event do the advertising for them.  Apparently, that publicity did not outweigh all of the terrible publicity garnered by the way they mishandled the bigger crowd in 2014.)

Now, I've seen people who were there say, 'well, I was opposed to capping the attendance, but it worked out!'  Well?  Of course, if one is at a big event and there are not all that many people there - say around 87,000 people in a plant which has handled as many as 120,000 (and better that year than this "big event" team handled a smaller crowd in 2014) - they're going to think 'hey, that was great!' By that logic, why don't they limit the crowd to 60,000, imagine how convenient everything would be!  But, in my opinion, that's hardly the point.  Big racing days draw big racing crowds, and the challenge is for management to accommodate everyone who shows up and make them as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.  The attendance cap was nothing but a copout by a NYRA team that proved itself incompetent the prior year, and which was unwilling to step up to the plate to make the necessary improvements.

Horse racing has been conducted at Saratoga for some 150 years and never, at least as far as I know, has the attendance been capped.  Some of those days have sucked for some people, whether from it being too crowded or too hot or too wet or too whatever.  Yet the track's reputation has never emerged worse for the wear, at least in my experience.  The worst day I can personally recall was the Travers in 1978 when Affirmed and Alydar converged on the old track after slugging it out through the stretch in the Belmont.  Yet, it was a historic day about which I have only fond memories (other than the unfortunate circumstance of the race itself).  I think that people come to Saratoga on big days with tempered expectations as to their comfort level, and with a forgiving attitude.

Harvey Pack used to warn racegoers on rainy days that "You're not going to have a good time today." Yet, how many times have any of you that have been there ever seen a single unhappy face, no matter what the conditions?   And besides, over the years, with advances in technology and the wisdom of experience, the Spa has proven to be perfectly able to handle huge throngs with relative ease.  The fact is that the all the seats are sold on a weekend day anyway no matter who is running, and, as I've discussed and documented here in the past, the overflow crowd is perfectly content to simply hang out in the backyard and watch the races on television.  It's fine.  Always.  (Especially before this NYRA team started to usurp areas where people used to hang out with merchandise tents and hall of fame buildings.)

I can guarantee you that NYRA would piss off far more people should they deny them entry to see a Triple Crown winner than those who might gripe because they couldn't buy a Bud Light.  (And, unlike on Belmont Stakes day, everyone is free to bring in their own swag as long as it's not in a glass bottle.)  And, as far as I'm concerned, anyone who whines about an inconvenience at Saratoga is someone who we don't want there anyway. It's Saratoga.  Just deal with it.  We don't need these ridiculous know-nothings, who came in here bragging about their ability to stage big events - to come in and tell us that only a certain amount of people can come to the track.  It's just ridiculous.

And you know what else?  If, by some chance, 100,000 people descended on the track (extremely unlikely given historic attendance numbers and the geographical and logistical limitations in the area), causing the fire department if no one else to say enough is enough and turn people away, the news stories reporting that turn of events would be the absolute greatest bit of publicity this sport has experienced since just about ever!

 - I've seen some great concerts lately.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Now What?

These are my daughters, Chelsea and Kayla, at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

I was not there.  Partly because I had such a miserable time there last year, and mostly for reasons that I'll get into later in this post.  Anyway, if anyone had told me 10-15 years ago that my daughters would be at the Belmont and I wouldn't - especially with a horse going for the Triple Crown - I would surely have figured that it was part of some kind of memorial ritual for their old man!

The big question - considering how bad of a time so many people had there last year - is: did they have fun?  Let's see.

Guess we'll take that as a resounding 'yes!'  Along with two friends including Amanda (the Panda), pictured in the middle here, they headed to Jamaica station to catch the Long Island Railroad at around 2. They arrived at the track around an hour later with no problems.  They immediately hit the bathroom, no doubt due to consuming all of their drinkables on the train (I offered help in sneaking in alcohol); and reported that the line was long but moved quickly.  Apparently, they had no problem purchasing additional beverages at the track.  After the races, they enjoyed the harmless, though pointless, wimpy pop of the Goo Goo Dolls, and then headed back to the LIRR.  Prepared for the worst by railroad officials and by their dad, they instead walked directly onto a train with no wait, and even got seats.

The combined gross betting handle for the four of them on the day was $1.....though Kayla generously allowed NYRA to retain the $1.75 that her ticket on American Pharoah was worth at the time (it's now apparently worth around $25 on eBay; more if you include some finish line dirt [looks more like a dime bag]).  Kayla is actually a fan; along with my stepdaughter Chloe, she has attended the races with the Head Chef and I on more than just a few occasions, including at Saratoga and Del Mar. They're usually good for about ten bucks a day each (generously supplied by you-know-who) based largely on paddock observation.  Chelsea is not a fan, nor is Amanda (the Panda); but, based on this experience, no reason why they wouldn't go to the Belmont again, especially if a comparable wimpy pop or faux-punk band is playing.  (Or, especially, Diplo, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.) Unfortunately, there were no coupons issued for free admission in the future, guess that's too complicated of a concept for NYRA.

From what I've read, theirs was a pretty typical experience.  Unless I've missed something, aside from a few complaints about bathroom lines (women in the mens room again) and wifi (the girls had no issues with that), seems like everything went pretty smoothly.

That does not mean, however, that I'm here to praise NYRA for the effort. Chris Kay and his minions came into town touting their ability to stage the "big" events.  On that count, they failed miserably last year; both in the execution and the aftermath.  I find it pretty hysterical that the main strategy from this "big day" team was to make their biggest day significantly smaller, by capping the attendance at an alleged 90,000.  To me, handling a big day at the races means being able to accommodate the largest crowd possible by anticipating the worst and having the contingencies in place to deal with an overflow.  Under these controlled conditions, the task was made far easier. Sure, some credit is due; it was still a big crowd; and the music surely helped in controlling the outflow after the races, so that was a good plan. But it was also a huge copout, and the easy way out. And NYRA doesn't actually care if my girls or the other 86,998 or so paid attendees had a good time; only in the sense that they can take a PR victory lap and go before the board with their hands out for raises and bonuses.

And yeah, about that crowd, I don't believe for a single second that NYRA really sold 90,000 admissions; I think they're full of it.  I looked at Ticketmaster late on Friday night, and there was still no 'Not Many Left' designation.  And then, suddenly the next morning, they're sold out? Meanwhile, the prices on StubHub dropped precipitously throughout the morning, settling at around 7 bucks by 1PM (as opposed to the actual face value of more than $22, including all the Ticketmaster fees; great business when you can charge over 50% of the ticket price in fees).  Not only that, the number of admissions available on StubHub was actually increasing; there were some 2600 grandstand admissions and 500 clubhouse admissions available as of 1:30, when I left to join those millions of New Yorkers who couldn't care less about the Triple Crown for a day in Manhattan (while all of the supporting stakes that I couldn't care less about were being run).  Little doubt in my mind that a good portion of that inventory was NYRA's itself; I could picture Chris Kay himself sitting at his computer trying to sell them off.

As for me, I did not suffer from any FOMO; and nor do I have any regrets about not going.  Maybe I'm just too old at this point in my life to deal with big crowds and drunken preppies at a dilapidated racetrack.  One thing I was definitely wrong about though:  I figured that even if American Pharoah won, it would be due more to the mediocrity of the competition rather than the kind of greatness I witnessed when I saw Seattle Slew and Affirmed win their Crowns from excellent vantage points right around the finish line.

However, American Pharoah's Belmont win was nothing short of spectacular.  His final time of 2:26.65 was easily the fastest since Baffert's Point Given in 2001 (2:26.56).  Since the "tremendous machine" stopped the clock in 2:24 in 1973, only Risen Star (2:26.40), Easy Goer (2:26.00), AP Indy (2:26.13), and the aforementioned Point Given ran faster.  And, in this day and age, for a horse to complete the mile and a half by getting his final quarter in 24.32 - faster than any quarter mile of the race save for the opening one - is virtually unheard of.  By comparison, it took Easy Goer and Affirmed/Alydar 25 1/5 seconds to finish the race; Empire Maker 25 3/5; Afleet Alex 24.50.  (Rags to Riches/Curlin came home in 23 4/5; those horses were pretty damn good.  Secretariat got home in 25, but he was just loafing.)  This was truly a race for the ages, and we didn't need the track announcer to punctuate his call by yelling at the top of lungs to hammer that point home.

So now, you have your Triple Crown winner, after all these years and all the anticipation of the day when we would finally see this happen.  Which leads to the inevitable question:

As for the horse, happily, the connections apparently intend to continue his three-year old campaign; though the skeptics who are expecting some kind of benign career-ending injury to soon pop up can surely be forgiven. Baffert has mentioned the Haskell at Monmouth, and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar as possible races leading up to the Breeders' Cup.  That would be awesome.  However, the chances of American Pharoah following in the footsteps of Seattle Slew and Affirmed, and affirming his greatness beyond this year seem remote, to be sure.

As for the industry, the buzz will persist for awhile - obviously, the longer he continues to race, the better - before it dies down and "racing" turns back to the brooding and hand-wringing that has dominated over the last several years.  It's also possible that the hoopla over the Triple Crown will die down (been there, done that), and that this Crown will actually turn out to be a net negative over the next few years as far as publicity goes, as compared to what would have been had the streak started to approach 40 years. But no time for negativity right now.

As for me and my current status as a horseracing fan, bettor, and blogger (and if you care).....the truth is that I haven't been much into the racing game of late, for reasons both professional and personal. I went to Belmont a few weeks ago; it was the first time I'd been to a racetrack since last September, some eight months prior.  I was actually hoping that there, a spark would light and I would rediscover the joy that made me a regular railbird for some 40 or so years.  But, alas, it was not to be.  Belmont Park can do that, as depressingly empty as it tends to be even, in this case, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon; and especially if one ventures inside the mostly-unused plant, where the echoes of the crowd's roar in better times has long since evaporated into the filth and grime that serves to amplify the void. Can't say if I'll be back there anytime in 2015.

I've been involved in the industry due to my involvement with TimeformUS over the last few years. They say that one shouldn't work in a field that one loves, because you may end up hating it.  I wouldn't go that far, but I'm surely disillusioned.  Not free to go into the details here, but let's just say that a lot of industry people talk about what the industry needs, but when it comes down to it, they're full of shit and only interested in themselves.  (Though surely, that does not make horse racing unique....surely!)

And on the personal side, and without going into too long of a spiel (as I've written much of this in the past)....let's just say that I used to find this game a lot - and I mean, a LOT - more fun when it was accepted - and embraced - for what it is. And that is: a game.  And a game in which at least some, if not many, of the participants are scoundrels and rascals who flaunt the rules and push the boundaries of what we consider to be acceptable, both in terms of honesty, and how they treat the animal athletes.  When I first got involved, making the trips to Roosevelt and Yonkers back in the 70's, that was all OK.  In fact, it was part of the appeal.  Nobody I knew really wagered their money with the expectation that this was a totally honest enterprise, and any notion that we might have been scammed was met with smiles and smirks (at least the day after the latest Oscar or Frankie Martin claim won by five, or Herve won six on the night as the other drivers seemed to be pulling back on the reins).  It felt like we were doing something that was more than just a little on the disreputable side, a bit dirty; and I personally found that to be rather thrilling and liberating. Racing Forms were hidden behind the counter of the local newspaper store; and the lack of any pay phones at tracks lent to the feeling that we were in our own private little den of iniquity, cut off from the more legitimate outside world. (Now we cry and whine if we lack total connectivity to the outside world for even a single minute.)

Of course, now I'm much older, so I can't expect to experience those exact feelings at this point in my life. However, it's also largely due to the internet and social media that that kind of perverse joy is gone, in my opinion.  It's funny....I remember as we approached the year 1984, how we were obsessed about the notion of Big Brother watching over us to keep us all in line.  And though that's still a big concern (though one wonders how much we'd know about it today were it not for Edward Snowden), it seems that we've all established our own Big Brother in the form of Twitter and other social media.  Anyone who even approaches the line of what is considered to be immoral or unethical, or who is unfortunate enough to commit even the slightest misspeak, is immediately brought into line, and can easily have their careers or lives ruined immeasurably.

So, now I go on my Twitter timeline and read people bitching about which trainers are cheating with which drugs and how we should cut off their heads!  (So to speak, and probably a really bad metaphor to use at this point in time.)  We must have 72 hour pre-race detention and access to vet reports (snore).  We read multiple live tweeting from the latest conference or seminar regarding levels of cobalt, whether or not Lasix should be banned, how many horses died last week and who/what is to blame.  We read how horrible and cruel it is that a ten-year old gelding is being forced to - gasp - do what he was actually bred to do, and what he looked to me to be perfectly happy doing in winning his last three races before he was effectively ruled off the track by the ethicists who know what is best for everyone.

And we read people agonizing, insufferably in my opinion, about the ethics of the sport.  If I love animals, how can I love horse racing, pondered my friend Teresa (who I hope will still be so after she reads this).  If I was still going to the track, I'd have to discuss that with her at her upcoming birthday BBQ at Belmont over the hot dogs and hamburgers that she generously serves.

Now, perhaps you find it distasteful for me to be trivializing these things. But, to me, none of this is particularly serious in the scheme of things.  It's just a game!  Not only is all of this a bummer, it's boring too.  Not that the industry should not be attempting to cut down on cheating (it will never be completely eliminated, in any endeavor involving money or politics). However, this industry needs to be spending most of its conference, seminar, and hand-wringing time on: How Do We Make This Game Relevant Again Beyond Three Races a Year (two if there's no Triple Crown possibility).  As long as it's spending time on anything other than that at this point, it's a losing battle, as far as I can see.

And as far as the animals go, I wrote here about how, on the scale of cruelty to animals in this world, these horses have it pretty damn good.  In fact, the vast majority of these horses receive more love, care, and respect than a significant portion of the human population.  So I'm not going to repeat myself; you can read that post if you'd like. (Though I will link here with no further comment to the unfortunate tale of the late Allan the rabbit, clubbed to death with a bicycle pump by a Danish radio host in order to make a point; a very fair one in my opinion.)

Look, we are all put on this earth for a short time, and I figure we need to get as much enjoyment out of it as we can.  Fortunately for us humans, we're at the top of the food chain.  As the zookeeper who advised the abovementioned Danish radio host on how he clubs rabbits to death before feeding them to the snakes said: “It’s the animals who are there for us.....Not us who are there for the animals.” That's life; that's the way it is.  And, after all, since video serves as proof these days, we all know for an absolute fact what would be the case if it were indeed the other way around.

Oh, wrong clip (though I couldn't help it).  Here we go:

So, we can just accept this game for what it is - and after all, as I've said many times, if you've gotten past the fact that we breed this animals solely to exploit them for our own entertainment and enrichment, then you really already have - or you can agonize and moralize about it online.  The preponderance of the latter has really turned me off.  Maybe the answer for me is as simple as just not being on Twitter anymore.....or to unfollow all of my racing friends and peeps (but then I'd feel bad!). In any event, the fact is that I was due for a long, long break from this, so maybe it's really just that. Used to regularly take at least a couple of months off every year, but that went by the wayside for many years since I started this blog in January of 2005; not to mention my recent involvement with TimeformUS, in which play becomes work.  So, perhaps it's just fatigue.  And part of it is definitely my distaste for the current cynical corporate know-nothings running my favorite NY tracks. They'll be out of here at some point relatively soon!  Right? Right??  

The Head Chef and I will be venturing out to our favorite spot in Southern-most California this August, so perhaps a couple of days at Del Mar will do the trick (assuming I can tear myself away from the spectacular beaches).  In fact, we'll be there on the day of the Pacific Classic, so, if all goes well, maybe seeing the latest Triple Crown champion will bring me back in full force.  If he's not retired by then.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Casinos Losers Looking For a Do-Over

Here is the letter sent to Gaming Commission Chairman Mark Gearan, respectfully requesting that the state re-open the casino bidding process.  It was composed by an attorney writing "on behalf of several clients" who participated, unsuccessfully (obviously), in the NYS casino selection process last year.

It reads a lot more like a formal legal petition to a court of law than a friendly missive, complete with sections and subsections, footnotes, legal citations, and repeated mentions of ominous phrases like "arbitrary and capricious."

So, one can surely surmise where this is likely headed after the Gaming Commission either issues a polite declination or ignores it altogether.  After all, this attorney is not one who spends her time saying "pretty please," and I do not think she was engaged simply to write a letter.  Michelle Merola is a partner at Hodgson Russ LLP, a prominent name in gaming law.  And, on their website, she is described as a government-disputes lawyer with extensive experience litigating civil and criminal matters in a variety of federal jurisdictions as well as New York State. 
A significant portion of her practice is dedicated to defending corporations and individuals in government investigations, audits, and administrative proceedings related to tax, environmental, fraud, and health care matters. She also regularly challenges agency determinations in New York State courts through Article 78 proceedings.
We've discussed Article 78, in detail, in the distant past; and it is the means by which the Finger Lakes racetrack/racino is challenging the license recommendation to the Lago facility in Tyre, a lawsuit in which Hodgson Russ and Ms. Merola are also involved.

In addition to being an accomplished litigator, Ms. Merola is also apparently more than just a bit of a masochist. 
For the reasons set forth below, the Commission should decline to issue any licenses based on the current recommendations and direct the Location Board to start the entire process anew...
Oh, man.  Can you imagine going through this again, from scratch?  Another round of cheesy presentations of bucolic ponds, designer gardens, and happy families golfing and eating and drinking and laughing and frolicking through the grass or snow and doing everything and anything other than the only reason why they are being lured there in the first place?  Six more months of Kevin Law and Stu Rabinowitz?  I think I'd rather be strapped to a chair a la Alex in A Clockwork Orange and be forced to watch the video of Happy for as long as it took Senate Republicans to allow a vote on Loretta Lynch.  (Well, maybe not quite, but....)  Besides, by the time a second round would be over, the casino bubble may already be shattered to smithereens and we may be on to the next big thing, like......oh I dunno, maybe reading books, or going to the movies. Or the track.

Well, this would seem like a desperate shot in the dark, except that I'd imagine that Ms. Merola has better things to do than to sign up with a lost cause.  The letter delves into the language of the enabling legislation, and attempts to show how the process evolved in a way that violated the "very specific statutory requirements set therein."  It refers to the weighting percentages that the legislation quite specifically directed the Location Board to utilize - 70% for "economic activity and business development factors," 20% to "local impact and siting factors," and 10% to "workforce and enhancement factors" - about which Ms. Merola makes two main points:  1) The board, in fact, strayed from that "required scoring;" and 2) the board added a new criteria after the applications were in.

With regard to the first point, she uses the board's own words against it....words taken from the Final Report issued by the Location Board. 
The Board considered these summaries, its experts’ observations, additional facts and observations the Board obtained through its public hearings and dialogues with its experts and subsequent analyses prepared by such experts at the direction of the Board, in making determinations and reaching conclusions about the Applicants’ ability to advance the objectives of economic activity and business development, local impact and siting and workforce enhancement. The Board did not create numerical scores with regard to the criteria, but reached its conclusions based on a qualitative judgment after careful consideration of all these factors in determining which Applicants would best achieve the objectives of the Act, giving a qualitative weight to categories of factors as the legislature directed in PML section 1320.
"Here," Ms. Merola writes, "[the board] acknowledged that it chose to rely exclusively on a qualitative evaluation, rather than employing the quantitative weighing required by the Act, or scoring the applications in a manner consistent with general procurement practice."

The second point involves "additional criteria" that the board added after the proposals were due.  Specifically, Ms. Merola objects to the added notion that the proposals should address which "would best provide economic assistance to disadvantaged areas of the State." 
For example, the Location Board considered which proposals would best provide economic assistance to disadvantaged areas of the State.
  Oh, the Horror! 
This factor, crucial to a decision about what location to select for an applicant's proposal, was not disclosed prior to the submission of applications and hundreds of thousands of dollars.  And, not only did the Location Board utilize a previously unarticulated factor in its evaluation, but it apparently elevated that factor above all others.  In fact, all of the successful applications share the distinction of being sited in the most disadvantaged areas of the State.
OK, well, here I must diverge from my usual role as neutral and dispassioned observer.  Let's, for a moment, forget the formal letter of the law, and talk about common sense (for whatever that may be worth).  I think everybody, all along, realized that one of, if not the most important, goal of Governor Cuomo in limiting the first round of casinos to upstate New York was indeed to provide assistance to areas of the state that are struggling financially.  In fact, the very first line of the RFA reads as follows: 
Dear Applicant: New York Governor Cuomo has made reviving Upstate New York's long-stagnant economy a priority of his administration.
Get the point?  It's true, we must acknowledge, that the legislature did not do a good job of articulating this in the language of the enabling law.  Indeed, the section describing the 70% weight to economic activity does not specify anything about helping distressed areas.  But it was surely no secret. That's what the governor spoke about when he went to the Catskills the day after the referendum was approved (a speech which was cited critically by critics when attention turned to Orange County).  And it was surely well known to the bidders when they made their oral presentations to the board, as evidenced by all of the segments in their slick videos which were devoted to tear-jerking tales of economic distress and chronic unemployment.  The notion that, had the criteria been stated clearly in the RFA, that the bidders may have chosen different sites is hogwash.  The only thing that would have perhaps - mabye - been different is that the Orange County bidders may not have bothered; but I rather doubt that.  The "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in bidding costs was just pocket change to them, and well worth taking a shot, even a long one, at the riches that a casino location within an hour of NYC would have brought.  And again, they all knew what the implied, if not properly stated, purpose of this exercise was.

So, personally, I would stick to the first point; they're not going to find much sympathy with this one.  In fact, the idea of a company like Genting whining because "the successful applications share the distinction of being sited in the most disadvantaged areas of the State" is rather distasteful, to say the very least.  Based on the crocodile tears for the poor that we saw at the presentations, one might think that the losers would magnanimously be toasting the board for doing the proper thing.

The letter makes some final points; it points to the inconsistency between the board's refusal to recommend a location in Orange County due to the threat of cannibalization, but selecting Lago despite the huge threat of such to neighboring facilities such as the Finger Lakes (based largely on a report commissioned by the Finger Lakes) and Vernon Downs (both exacerbated by the fact that the tax rates on the existing racinos are significantly higher than those for the casinos to which they would lose customers).  It simply and succinctly points out that the winning bidders' projections of revenues to the state lagged behind those of many of the losers; thus ignoring the legislation's directive to maximize revenue to the state.  And finally, it notes the conflict of interest inherent in its outside consultant who had previously worked for five of the applicants, including all three winners.

Again, I wouldn't expect anything to come out of this letter; but we might very well expect it to proceed to the legal arena once the Commission turns its collective noses up at the thought of a do-over.  Perhaps I'll follow up in my next post, which you can probably expect sometime around Thanksgiving.

(Just kidding.)


Until that time....Let's Go Rangers!!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Tyre Casino Opponents Heading Back to Court

As all eyes were on the Gaming Facility Location Board as they voted unanimously to re-entertain the notion of a casino in what is considered to be the "true" Southern Tier region, casino opponents in Tyre are gearing up for another attempt to stop the Lago Casino which was recommended for a license for the region instead.  Despite the fact that Wilmorite has not yet been issued a license by the Gaming Commission (and apparently don't yet own the land), it is already building a retention pond in an area away from the main road.  Casino opponents are keeping an eye on the proceedings with a drone, and I received this photo along with a note declaring that Wilmorite is already "destroying some nice woodland and farmland."

As you may recall, the casino opponents suffered a resounding defeat in court when they first filed their Article 78 proceeding against the process by which the Town Board conducted the required environmental review (SEQRA).  I wrote here about the SEQRA process and some of the objections as to how it was conducted in Tyre; about the lawsuit here; and about the verdict, in vivid detail and with an appropriate amount of dismay, here.

Now, CasinoFreeTyre is back with an appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals, with some new legal help and a motion bolstered with new arguments, a multitude of case citations, and a bit of swagger.  It's a good read as far as these things go, so I've embedded it below for those of you who are interested.  For those of you who aren't, the opening paragraph, reprinted below the document, pretty much sums up the substance and spirit of the document.

At the dawn of the SEQRA era, State and local officials rushed through approval of the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University on the strength of a negative declaration of environmental significance.  This Court rejected such an obvious violation of SEQRA's mandates, and in doing so, created the "hard look" standard now embodied in the SEQRA procedures.  See H.O.M.E.S. v. New York State Urban Dev Corp., 69 A.D.2d 222 (4th Dep't 1979).  Now before this Court is a similarly rushed review, for a project of even greater scale than the Carrier Dome - a half-billion-dollar, 450,000-plus sq. ft. hotel and casino with 3,300 parking spaces, and related infrastructure - on the strength of a review notable for its acknowledgment of multiple significant potential adverse impacts, but absent any consideration of those impacts.  If Wilmorite's Lago Casino can pass muster with solely a negative declaration, then this Court should simply declare H.O.M.E.S. overturned and SEQRA repealed. 
(Of course, the Carrier Dome was ultimately built.)  Briefly, for those of you not inclined to dig back into the past posts linked to above, the Town Board, in Part 2 of the SEQRA forms, identified ten items as likely to result in "significant adverse environmental impacts," but then proceeded to gloss over each and every one in summarily dismissing them as concerns in Part 3.  The plaintiffs assert that the Board "failed to take a hard look at the relevant areas of environmental concern, failed to discuss what, if any, mitigation was contemplated to ensure the impact areas it identified as potentially significant would not be, never reviewed the criteria for determining environmental significance, and did not provide any basis for its determination whatsoever."  Again, further details on their complaints, as well as how this SEQRA process is totally stacked in favor of the "lead agency" conducting it (in this case the Town Board), - which is free to interpret the issues in a way that favors their agenda - in this post.

A few points from the injunction:

 - Particular emphasis is placed on the proximity of the casino site to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, a "critical environmental resource," which is situated "in the middle of one of the busiest bird migration routes on the Atlantic Flyway."  It's home to six bald eagle nests; and includes habitats for several other endangered species, including the pied-billed grebe.

Cute little guy, eh?

 - The attorney for the Town Board openly admitted that the board failed to provide the required elaboration on Part 3.  She provided her own text a full month later, and it was sent to SEQRA-related agencies as an attachment to Part 3, even though it was never adopted by the Town Board; not to mention subject to public comment.  The document cites a past case in which the court declares that "post hoc rationalizations are not permitted."

 - The item of potential environmental impact that I've been most incredulous about is the one regarding community character; the fact that the Town Board could so casually dismiss the notion that a giant casino would profoundly affect the character of a tiny rural town.  The motion cites some past cases in which the court agreed with the plaintiffs in that regard, and notes:
The Casino Project Negative Declaration is as dubious as those annulled in the cases cited above - although those were for smaller projects.  The two-year construction of an approximately $450 million casino complex, with significant parking for vehicles and a more than 287,500 sq. ft. building footprint, holding over 450,000 sq. ft. of total space, on an 85-acre parcel of farmland in a rural, agricultural community, will have an "undeniable impact" on the aesthetics of the area.
  - The plaintiffs conclude that since they have demonstrated a "blatant failure" of the town to comply with SEQRA, they are "likely to succeed on the merits of this appeal;" and they request a preliminary injunction to halt construction that would cause them "irreparable harm."  They hope that the case will be heard no later than early next month.  We obviously wish them well.

 - Meanwhile, Jeff Gural/Tioga Downs is, thus far, the only party participating in the re-opened bidding for a casino in the southern part of the Southern Tier.  Still, Gural is going to have to sweeten his proposal, which was rejected in part because it was small in comparison to Lago; especially considering that he would only be adding on to an existing facility.  Guess that cuts both ways, and the fact that he could be up and running in a matter of months did not outweigh size in the minds of the Location Board members.  So, Gural is really piling on those amenities! 
The new proposal will feature more amenities: a second restaurant, a miniature golf course, batting cages and a climbing wall. [Albany Times-Union]
  Oh yeah, that should really do it! 

Look, the problem with this whole thing is obvious to me, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with a putt-putt course and how many extra tens of thousands Gural is willing to throw in here.  He's a polarizing guy to be sure, and I know a lot of people who will brook no dissent as to him being an evil man.  I don't necessarily agree; I think he's an interesting guy and more complex than the villain he's made out to be.  But here, he's tipped the process into the realm of the unacceptable and absurd.  When he was passed over for a license, Gural stomped his feet and whined quite loudly that he spent $600,000 or $800,000 or whatever the real figure was on supporting the governor's referendum and how dare he be rewarded like this.  So, what does the governor do; the same governor who has publicly pledged that he wouldn't interfere in this process?  And who has decried the influence of money in politics?  He writes to the board, asking them to reconsider, and they dutifully go along.  Now, Gural is awkwardly pandering to the board, and this promises to become a cat and mouse game of how little he can add on and still convince the board to recommend a license for him (if that decision has not already been made for them).

Wow, talk about appearance!  We always lament about how people in this state are able to buy influence and favor behind closed doors, but this is playing out right out in public.  Wah wah Andrew, I spent all this money to support you, so I want my license. Oh OK Jeff, sorry, I'll tell my buddies on the board to give you one, don't worry, sorry that this happened.  I mean, I think that they just can't give this guy a license under these circumstances.  Can you imagine all the foot-stomping we'll have  from the entitled in the future if Gural is ultimately rewarded for this kind of behavior with a casino?  And I'd like to produce the negative campaign ad should Cuomo ever decide to run for some kind of higher office.  Man.

 - Opposition to Nassau OTB's plans to build their slots parlor at the old Fortunoff store in Westbury is gathering momentum.  Here's yet another absolutely incredulous development that just does not reflect well on the governor and the process that he helped create.  You just can't go through months of a process that went out of its way to accommodate public comment (if not, as the Tyre casino opponents and spurned applicants know, to accommodate all of the interested parties), and then allow an entity like OTB to summarily and unilaterally declare and decide that they're going to build a casino - or a slots parlor or whatever you want to call it, it's all really the same - wherever they want.  You just can't.  And remember, this slots parlor was not even subject to the referendum vote - the governor's casino law provided for them even if the referendum went down.  So the residents of Westbury have had absolutely no say in this at any point in the process.  Man.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Odds and Ends, Briefly (Kind Of)

Greetings from the spectacularly beautiful island nation of Grenada!  As I'd mentioned, the Head Chef and I are away on vacation to mark a special occasion, and we still have several more days to go.  Once again, a happy, healthy and safe new year to all.  Just checking in with a few thoughts while I have a wireless connection, but will endeavor to be uncharacteristically succinct so I can get back to doing not much of anything at all.. 

Governor Cuomo lost his dad on the same day that he was inaugurated for his second term.  I wasn't much into state politics when Mario was governor, so, by far, I remember him most for his 1984 convention speech, and his flirtation with a presidential run.  His far less articulate son will never be the keynote speaker at a Democratic convention, and likely will never be anointed as the party's presidential candidate at one.  He has however done a graceful job of balancing his comments in the wake of the Eric Garner grand jury decision, the protests that it spurred, and the tragic and senseless cop killings that neither the protestors nor the mayor had anything to do with.  I could go on a bit here....but I'm on vacation, remember?  Having said that, one can surely understand why police officers would be inflamed by the mayor and police commissioner's deference towards Al Sharpton, who built his career by inflaming racial tensions with spectacular accusations when- and wherever he could get his then-fat face in front of a camera (at a time when that didn't come as easily as it does today).  Our buddy and longtime reader jk posted an article from the Post about the Reverend's involvement with bidders for the Aqueduct casino.

 - The governor's letter to the Location Board asking it to reopen the bidding for a casino in the real Southern Tier has the potential to open up a can of worms.  Ulster County Executive Michael Hein wants the board to re-consider a license for the Nevele. 

On a Tuesday letter to the Gaming Commission and its siting board, Hein, a strong supporter of the Nevele plan, wrote: “It is my strong belief, motivated by legislative intent and fairness, that the new round of applications includes the Catskills/Hudson Valley Region, not just the Eastern Southern Tier/Finger Lakes Region.” [Daily Freeman]
The Nevele was the only unsuccessful bidder in the Catskills/Hudson Valley region that was singled out in the board's final report; it noted that their financing was not complete.  Hein noted that, back in the day, competition in the Catskills "was not a detriment, but rather fostered broad commercial success among a network of resorts."  I imagine that Mohegan Sun and Louis Cappelli, rejected in their bid at the Concord, would share these sentiments as well.

This article, which I found at the Ithaca Journal site, is chock full of information about the tracks that are likely to be negatively affected by the controversial casino in Tyre; the non-Southern Tier selection in the Southern Tier region.  Could go on extensively about it if I wasn' know.  It's worth a read if you're interested in the subject.  In summary though: Finger Lakes is screwed.  In another example of something that those who wrote this law and created the gerrymandered Southern Tier region obviously didn't think about:  Finger Lakes, only 27 miles from where Lago is supposed to be built, will not have purses supported by the Lago casino at 2013 levels because it is in Region 6.  But Tioga Downs, which is nearly two hours away, will receive purse support because it's in the same Southern Tier region.  Go figure that one out.  Estimates as to how much business Finger Lakes will lose range from 21% (the study commissioned by Lago) to 50% (the track's estimate).  Guess we can figure the real damage will be somewhere in between.

 - Business is brisk for commercial real estate developers in Schenectady now that casino gambling is coming there. 
Among those looking to benefit are property owners on a stretch of Erie Boulevard west of the casino site that has a hodge-podge of businesses and buildings, some of which are run-down, empty or not fully utilized. [Biz Journals]
All well and good....but these folks are presuming that the casino customers are going to stray outside the gaming floor that the Rivers Casino will be doing their best to keep them at.  So, that's one of the many assumptions about these casinos that we'll just have to wait and see how they turn out.

 - Nassau OTB has settled on the old Fortunoff's building on Old Country Road in Westbury for its VLT parlor.   Those of you from my generation who grew up at the NY harness tracks know that Roosevelt was right there, so the location is more than just a bit ironic.  It's also infuriating to some residents of the area. 
Some local residents told Fox 5 it doesn't belong there and that they fear increased traffic and crime.  The issue has even taken to social media with a Facebook page called Stop the Casino at Fortunoff. It has more than 1,700 likes. [MYFOXNY]
That all sounds quite familiar from the recent casino bidding.  What is quite different though is that these residents didn't have a chance to express their concerns directly to the decision makers like those in the cities and towns targeted for casinos did (for whatever that was worth for those in Tyre).  So, you can't blame those opposed to this gambling facility for being outraged.

 - And finally, I noticed this photo essay in the Times.
Thoroughbred horse racing provides one of the great American spectacles: the magnificently chiseled athletes, the elemental contest of speed and power, the libidinal rush of personal fortunes won or lost by the margins of a split second.  The photographer Theo Zierock, who spent last winter shooting Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, found none of that. What he found instead was a decaying building populated by lonely old men.
Well, first of all, I have to presume that "last winter" means a year ago.  So, in addition to its appearance at this time being totally random, there have been improvements made to the facility since then; so that it's a bit less of a dump now than it was then.  More importantly, it seems to me that if the photographer Theo Zierock really wanted to take photos of magnificently chiseled athletes, the elemental contest of speed and power, and the libidinal rush of personal fortunes won or lost by the margins of a split second rather than of lonely old men, he surely could have done so.

I myself have not been to the Big A since it opened in the fall; and, believe it or not, I can honestly say from this paradise that I don't miss it at all.  I wouldn't call it a boycott.  I just don't want to go there. 

When I first started writing this blog ten years ago this month, this was one of my favorite times of the year to go to the track in NY.  Forget the dismal inner track racing; I'd get there at 4 PM and spend the rest of the afternoon/early evening betting on races from Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Santa Anita, and just about whatever else was offered.  Can't say how many other people were there in the back rooms of the second floor of the clubhouse; but the atmosphere was crackling.  It was hardcore, but in a comfortable, if not elegant, setting.  Over the last decade, with the continued deterioration of the plant - particularly in my second floor hangout, where the only attention paid was the unfortunate decision to install those horrible desk units, which totally changed the ambiance for the worse- combined with the ease of wagering at home, it has become a place where I don’t particularly want to spend the afternoon.  I can't really remember the last time I walked in and wasn't wondering, within an hour, why the hell I was there.

I know, it's been prettied-and-cleaned up.  But a prettied-and-cleaned-up dump is still a dump. And the old haunts on the second floor is the pleasantly functional Longshots bar that they now want even NYRA Rewards members to pay $5 to enter.  I find that I just don’t want to pay that.  It's not that the five bucks is gonna make me broke.  I just don't want to pay it.  Nor do I want to pay for overpriced food and drink.  I'm just not interested in being an ATM for these guys in their pursuit of the mythical "profitable without slots" holy grail. 

As we've noted, this whole notion of being "profitable without slots" is just a number on a piece of paper that means nothing in the real world.  NYRA is dependent on slots revenue to support the purses that they use to compete with other slots states, and to promote their "big days," scheduled to be even bigger this year (oh joy).  The slots revenue earmarked for capital projects allows NYRA to modernize their facilities in ways that facilitate increased revenue, mutuel and otherwise.  And it no doubt helps to lessen the occurrence of maintenance and repair problems/emergencies that they'd have to pay for out of their operating expenses.  So the idea that a number on an income statement means that NYRA could truly be profitable without slots is a fictional one.  However, it is a number that will earn Chris Kay more bonuses and be highlighted on his resume when he moves on to his next gig.  I do think that Kay is earnest about wanting horse racing to prosper in New York.  But we also know that this is merely a step in his corporate career, and success, even if defined on his own terms, would be quite the feather in the cap.

None of the above is to belittle the pursuit of a NYRA that is able to prosper without the miserable machines next door, even though the political pressure to do so seems to have eased, at least for now. The last regime wanted to move in that direction organically, by replacing the void left by NYC OTB. This regime is doing so by trying to bleed the money from its customers.  Speak to you again soon.