|By Nick Kling|
The death watch on New York Thoroughbred racing must, unfortunately, be resumed.
The most recent extension agreement between the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and state officials does not guarantee a successful resolution of the crisis. Instead, it pushed the day of ultimate decision from last Wednesday to Feb. 13.
There is no evidence that there will be an agreement by Feb. 13, and no further extension beyond that. The parties involved in the franchise renewal process have drawn lines in the sand which appear to have them further apart than ever.
One month ago I spoke to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno about the NYRA Board of Trustees. Bruno has been advocating a significant change in the make-up of the group. I asked Senator Bruno if a reconstituted NYRA board would have to consist of a majority of state appointees. His answer to me, at that time, was clear.
"Absolutely not," Bruno said.
However, Daily Racing Form reported in its Jan. 21 on-line edition that Bruno is now striving for exactly that.
If correct, the story leads to one of two possible conclusions. Either there has been a substantial hardening of Bruno’s position, or state control of the NYRA Board was his goal all along.
A NYRA official indicated to me weeks ago it was unlikely the current Board of Trustees would ever accept such a position.
Bruno appeared on a local television show at the end of December. At that time he cheerfully described how close negotiators were to a positive franchise outcome. However, anyone who listened closely noted a caveat Bruno added to the conversation.
"I need a partner," Bruno said.
That apparently was directed at Governor Eliot Spitzer and NYRA, with whom Bruno has been at odds over the details of a final proposal.
For his part, Spitzer’s budget proposal for this year includes revenue from video lottery terminals (VLTs) installed at Belmont Park. That is a gigantic leap of faith unwarranted by the facts.
For starters, VLTs have not been approved for Belmont Park, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has opposed them. In addition, the Spitzer budget covers the period from April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009. If these VLTs were approved tomorrow, it is unlikely they would be operating for at least a year. The Spitzer budget revenue projection from VLTs is fantasy.
Adding potential Belmont Park VLTs to the equation may complicate the franchise outcome. Senator Bruno favors VLTs at Belmont and including them in the budget could be Spitzer’s way of making them a negotiating chip to be traded. Worse yet for racing is the fact that the budget process has begun. Bruno, Spitzer, and Silver will now be focused on the larger issue, one which affects many more of their constituents than racing.
Fortunately, the already approved VLTs for Aqueduct and those proposed for Belmont have the potential to generate vast revenue streams. That should keep the subject of racing from disappearing off the leadership’s radar. Even if NYRA was willing to accept another extension past Feb. 13, it has been made more difficult by political in-fighting.
The Non-Profit Racing Oversight Board, which grants the extensions and is in technical control of racing at Aqueduct, may have been hamstrung by a recent decision.
The Board originally consisted of four Republicans and one Democratic member. Several weeks ago Spitzer replaced Republican chair Carole Stone with Democrat Steven Newman. Although that left Republicans with a 3-2 voting edge, the Board had previously given the chair person powers to negotiate with NYRA.
It rescinded that authority on Tuesday.
That means, for example, the entire board could impose much more restrictive conditions on any future extension. NYRA was reluctant to accept the initial extension because it did not want to weaken its contention that it (NYRA) is the legal owner of the racetrack properties.
The bottom line is this. Either NYRA or the Oversight Board could easily prevent a further extension after Feb. 13.
If there is no extension past Feb. 13, there are two potential outcomes. Either a final agreement will be reached, or racing at Aqueduct will come to a halt. As of today, the odds for a stoppage are much better than for a new franchise.
The motives of most of the participants are clear. NYRA wants to protect its standing as racetrack operator. It is willing to renounce its claim to those properties to accomplish that end. Spitzer and Silver care about revenue and are less concerned with who operates the tracks.
Spitzer’s position of appointing NYRA to continue is likely based on a belief they would prevail in a court battle over property ownership, or could drag the process out forever and disrupt racing.
Bruno’s goals are less certain. The Senator maintains all he wants is what is best for racing: to keep New York the premier Thoroughbred venue in the nation.
However, that could be done without state control of the NYRA Board of Trustees.
New York already has a State Racing and Wagering Board, which can impose whatever conditions it deems necessary, within the boundaries of racing law.
New York already has the Non Profit Racing Oversight Board, which can function as a fiscal watch dog.
New York already has the right to appoint some members of the NYRA Board who can report back to the first two groups and the state legislature if NYRA management fails to function.
There is much at stake.
An extended racing stoppage could threaten NYRA’s existence and Joe Bruno’s position of leadership in the Senate.