There is a very good reason people are suspicious about Tim Smith's motives in his role as president of Friends of New York Racing, the industry funded think tank and research group behind the proposal to change the business model under which racing in the Empire State is run.
The reason? Because Smith's motives are pure. Hardened New Yorkers have a difficult time believing someone is looking out for the greater good of the horse industry and not pushing a self-serving agenda. That hasn't happened for a long time. No wonder they're suspicious.
Dennis Brida, executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, may have said it best during an Aug. 22 open forum in Saratoga Springs sponsored by Friends of New York Racing: "People say, 'Tim is working for NYRA.' 'Tim is working for Magna.' 'Tim is working for Churchill.' I can tell you that Tim is working for nobody except for the good of New York racing."
Magna International and Churchill Downs are supporters of Friends of New York Racing, and executives with those companies have made no secret of the fact they would like to have the franchise to run racing there. But Smith is not a stalking horse for them, just as he isn't going to be one for NYRA or any other group. His sole concern is changing the structure under which racing will be run.
ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro pointed out in his remarks at The Jockey Club Round Table Aug. 21 that racing in New York is "dysfunctional." Shapiro cited two branches of that dysfunctional family--the tracks and OTB parlors--each of which have separate agendas, brands, and marketing campaigns. They have fought bitterly in the past, particularly in Albany, where the politicians have responded with a pox on both of their houses.
Forming and keeping a coalition together long enough to pass a new racing law in Albany will be an enormous challenge for Smith and the Friends of New York Racing. Shapiro offered advice from his perspective at ESPN: "It can't be about self-interest; it has to be about self-sacrifice." Smith said much the same in analyzing his chances of succeeding with the legislature. "The answer," he said, "will lie in which type of math is used: addition or division."
If addition is used, and favorable legislation is passed, New York racing's skies are blue.
In the public forum, Smith referred to Woodbine Entertainment's success story in Ontario, Canada. "They have a public-private partnership that works for the province," he said. "You walk into Woodbine racetrack and ask yourself, 'Why doesn't this occur at Belmont?' It's brand-spanking new. It's had huge capital improvements. If you are a regular player you are part of a player loyalty program. They track your bets at the OTBs. You can access account wagering through any technology you want. It's all seamless and together. They have a new brand of OTBs, funded with capital from the VLTs. These are better than ESPN Zones or Dave and Busters restaurants. And 50% of the wagers at these places are made by new fans.
"Can you do that in New York?" he said. "No. Player loyalty not allowed. You can't access account wagering by a PC. And are the facilities new and shiny and bright with the latest technology? No. But all those things are fixable."
Woodbine was in worse shape than New York is today when the horse community decided it was in everyone's best interest to work together. Thoroughbreds and harness; racetracks and owners; regulators and breeders.
New York can do the same, and its success can be far greater. "(New York) has the best racing in the world with the worst business structure," Smith said.
It also has a long history of internecine fighting and political cynicism that it will have to overcome before the Friends of New York Racing can accomplish its mission.