By MICHAEL VEITCH, On horse racing
The issue of purses will soon reveal just how serious state and track leaders are when they talk about "world-class racing."Racing fans have long enjoyed the highest quality of racing at the New York Racing Association tracks of Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga.
It peaks at Saratoga, recognized as one of the world’s premier race meetings.
But if the new franchise does not deal with major purse increases, particularly as competitive states award larger slices from VLT revenue, New York racing will suffer.
When New York authorized VLT’s five years ago, it allocated 7.5 percent to purses, rising to 10 percent after five years.
Not only are we still waiting for a VLT operation at Aqueduct, we have also seen the allocation drop to 6.5 percent in the Memorandum of Understanding between NYRA and Governor Eliot Spitzer.
According to a New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s release, Pennsylvania awards 18 percent and Delaware 11.1 percent.
NYTHA is pressing state leaders to pay attention to this issue, and has had regular talks with the staffs of Gov. Spitzer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.
"We are particularly appreciative of Sen. Joseph Bruno for recognizing the important contributions that horsemen make to the industry, by insisting that protections for horsemen and an equitable share of VLT revenues for purses be included in the award of the franchise and any underlying reform legislation," said NYTHA president Rick Violette.
Violette pointed to a recent study that showed New York horsemen have a shortfall of approximately $100 million annually between daily overhead costs and the amount of purse money available at the three tracks.
"A healthy horse industry means a healthy Saratoga," he said.
NYTHA is also urging state leaders to revisit a 30-year-old law, the Interstate Horseracing Act, which obliged all racing associations except NYRA to deal with its horsemen with respect to simulcast contracts.
"There is no rational, reasonable or ethical reason that the New York horsemen racing at the NYRA tracks should not have the same rights as every other horsemen’s group in the country," said Violette.
Violette said NYTHA was committed to working with NYRA and state leaders to ensure that racing quality remains high as the next franchise agreement is worked out.
NYRA is currently operating on a temporary extension, granted by the state Oversight Board, set to expire on Jan. 23.
"We’re really at a dangerous stage right now," said Violette. "I don’t think we should do something just for the sake of getting it done."
If a new agreement does not provide for a major purse boost, the owners and trainers we have come to love at Saratoga every summer are going to be injured. It will no longer be a given that all the top horses will race here, particularly if purses in Pennsylvania rise sharply with new VLT revenue.
For example, last year’s Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 3, was boosted to $1 million.
That was just one week later than our storied Travers Stakes, which is also worth $1 million and has not seen a purse increase in nearly 10 years. Think it might impact the Travers if it goes to $2 million?
The Delaware Handicap has been worth $1 million for three years; the Go For Wand and Personal Ensign at Saratoga are worth $250,000 and $400,000, respectively.
Those Saratoga races for the older female division are both Grade I races.
If the Delaware Handicap, won by champion Fleet Indian in 2006, attains Grade I status, it will put more pressure on Saratoga for horses in that division.
These are just a couple examples of what is happening in neighboring states as they increase purses.
If franchise negotiations don’t do right by New York horsemen, we’re going to be talking a different ballgame a few years down the road.