by Paul Post
Thoroughbred racing officials in New York praised Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno on Tuesday for his lifetime contributions to the sport but expressed concern about what his absence will mean to the industry.
Bruno, 79 (R-Brunswick), whose district includes Saratoga Race Course, announced late Monday that he will not seek re-election this fall. Senate Republicans on Tuesday chose a new majority leader, Senator Dean Skelos of Nassau County, Long Island.
Bruno was a major player in countless key racing decisions such as the February 13 approval of the New York Racing Association’s new 25-year franchise agreement.
“He’s racing’s strongest advocate in state government without a doubt,” said John Hendrickson, husband of philanthropist and Whitney Stables owner Marylou Whitney. “He’ll still be the go-to man on racing issues whether he’s senator or not. He’ll still have a lot of influence on racing.”
Bruno already has tabbed Hendrickson as one of his two picks for the new NYRA board, which has not organized yet. Albany businessman John Nigro is the other.
“Joe has a passion for racing,” said Jack Knowlton, managing general partner of Sackatoga Stable, which owns 2003 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Funny Cide. “He was part of Funny Cide’s retirement ceremonies last summer at Saratoga. He was always proud that a locally-owned, locally-bred horse was champion. That was something that really kind of brought us together.
“More importantly, he understands the importance of racing and breeding to his district and all of upstate New York. It’s going to be a huge gap to try to fill.”
On Monday, for example, Bruno wanted funding for a Cornell University equine drug-testing program added to legislation approving technical amendments to NYRA’s new franchise agreement. He also sought more funding for breeders and the creation of a community-based advisory board that would provide input on Belmont Park operations.
However, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, did not want those “add-ons” included.
“These are important issues,” Bruno spokesman Scott Reif said. “We’ll save that fight for another day.”
The priority, he said, was getting NYRA’s legislation approved, which is needed to help it emerge from bankruptcy.
“If we’re going to clean up the sport, it’s going to take money,” Knowlton said. “Joe was a big supporter of that. I don’t know if anyone else has the interest, capability or knowledge to bring racing issues to the forefront.”
Horsemen and breeding program leaders praised Bruno for helping them get higher shares of projected Aqueduct gaming revenues.
“That will result in millions of extra dollars over the length of the contract,” said Rick Violette, a prominent trainer and president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “He stood fast and firm behind the horsemen. He leaves very big shoes to fill.”
Martin Kinsella, head of the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund, said Bruno has been a good friend to the breeding industry.
“He’s one of the few people in the legislature who understood the role of breeding and its importance as a cog in racing’s wheel,” Kinsella said. “He was an ally.”
Bruno also fought to get video lottery terminals at Belmont Park in addition to Aqueduct. He argued that gaming is needed at both tracks in order to generate enough money to keep New York racing competitive.
“That would be a monumental win for the racing and breeding industry in New York if that were to happen,” Knowlton said, adding that Belmont has vast acreage whose potential is widely underutilized.
Silver, however, blocked VLTs at Belmont, saying that the New York marketplace would be oversaturated with gaming.
“Joe took a strong stand,” Knowlton said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t win on that one. It’s an opportunity lost. I doubt if anybody’s going to be able to pick up the ball on that.”