With the New York Racing Association’s temporary operating extension set to expire on February 13, horsemen have been advised that the Aqueduct backstretch will be closed if no agreement is reached or new extension granted.
Rick Violette Jr., president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said NYRA officials have advised owners and trainers that they will have to remove their horses from the Aqueduct backstretch if NYRA shuts down. Violette believes there will be no more temporary agreements.
“I think if a long-term agreement is not reached, we will see a shutdown this time,” Violette said. “I don’t think there will be another extension.”
NYRA, whose franchise expired on December 31, has been running Aqueduct’s winter meeting with a temporary extension. With key differences on the length of NYRA’s contract, size and makeup of NYRA’s board, and the addition of slot machines at Belmont Park, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Governor Eliot Spitzer have not reached a long-term racing franchise agreement. The government stalemate could hurt horsemen.
“The horsemen that are in New York this time of year, really need this meeting. They are often the smaller guys who rely on this meet to make their year,” Violette said. “A shutdown would really hurt them.”
Many top stables ship to Florida in the winter, creating a more advantageous money-earning opportunity for the horsemen who winter at Aqueduct, which has averaged $353,199 in daily purses during the current meeting.
According to Violette, NYRA will give horsemen the option to move their horses to Belmont Park for training.
“It looks like we would have about a week to remove all horses from Aqueduct,” Violette said. “Then Aqueduct would be closed and Belmont would be kept open for training.”
In terms of horsemen who want to ship their horses to another regional track currently racing, Violette said it appears Laurel Park and Delaware Park could provide limited stall space. Philadelphia Park has no room.
While some trainers would have to share barns, Violette said Belmont does have enough room for the affected Aqueduct horses. Any shutdown, however, could create even more expenses for horsemen..
“We’ve been told that NYRA would have enough money to keep Belmont open as a training facility for about three weeks,” Violette said. “After that, horsemen would have to pay some kind of stipend to allow NYRA to continue to keep it open for training.”
NYRA declared bankruptcy in 2006 and has been operating with a state loan that was supposed to keep it going through ’07, not into ’08.
“There is a real possibility that NYRA will run out of cash,” said Charles Wait, a long-time NYRA board member who resigned on January 30. “If that happens, there’s a real possibility that racing will stop.”
A franchise agreement is needed for NYRA to get out of bankruptcy and secure the financing it needs, Wait said. The next franchise also is expected to include gaming at Aqueduct and possibly Belmont. Such revenues would put NYRA in the black within two years, NYRA President Charles Hayward said.
Spitzer and NYRA have agreed to a memorandum of understanding that NYRA’s creditors have approved and the state Assembly supports. Senate Republicans, led by Bruno, are the only ones standing in the way, Wait said.
Bruno, however, says the NYRA-Spitzer deal is fiscally irresponsible. He says NYRA should be held to greater accountability with a reconstituted board.
“We’ve made it clear that the old racing model does not work and that significant changes are necessary to make racing even better,” Bruno said.
The size and makeup of NYRA’s board is believed to be the key sticking point in franchise agreement negotiations.
Bruno has been a strong advocate for horsemen and wants them to get a fair share of gaming revenues, said Jack Knowlton, Sackatoga Stable’s managing partner.
“The Assembly doesn’t seem to be engaged at all in the racing issue or minimally at best,” Knowlton said. “Here we are in February. In my mind it’s just ridiculous that there hasn’t been ongoing meetings the past few weeks to get this resolved. I don’t think it’s a priority for the governor, either.
“Unfortunately, I think it has become somewhat of a political football.”
Knowlton served on a state Ad Hoc Committee for the Future of Racing that evaluated bids from firms seeking the next racing contract.