NYRA Franchise, Winter Racing Discussed
Photo: Chad B. Harmon
Rick Violette Jr.

The future structure of the New York Racing Association and the implications for year-round racing in the state were examined Aug. 12, the first day of the Saratoga Institute on Racing & Gaming Law in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The Albany Law School, which hosts the conference each year, extended an invitation to NYRA chief executive officer Chris Kay, but his office declined, said panel moderator Chris Wittstruck, an attorney and director for the Standardbred Owners Association of New York. A member of the NYRA board of directors agreed to participate but was a "late scratch," Wittstruck said.

The discussion was left to Wittstruck, who provided a brief history of NYRA and an update on the path to its future; New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president Rick Violette Jr.; and Patrick Connors, an Albany Law School professor who chairs the New York State Racing Fan Council.

Wittstruck described the ups and downs of the association and its never-ending battle with state government. He summed up the first five decades of NYRA this way: "It's about the state saying NYRA can do nothing, and NYRA can do nothing right. Would the state treat the New York Yankees that way?"

The NYRA Reorganization Board, formed in 2012, was given three years to devise recommendations for the association's future structure. The board is set to expire in October 2015, with recommendations due in April; it has been reported the board may have its report finished by the end of this year.

Wittstruck noted statute that states the board will issue recommendations to the governor and state legislature "representing a statutory plan for the prospective not-for-profit governing structure" of NYRA. The association's position, however, is that NYRA "will revert back to majority private control."

That conflict leaves many questions about the state's intention for the franchise. Will the current board be extended beyond 2015? Will the franchise be put out for bid? Could the structure just revert to what it was in 2008?

Wittstruck said a private purchase is questionable if for no other reason than the huge video lottery terminal casino at Aqueduct Racetrack is run by Genting, not NYRA. The same would be the case for any buyer, who also may be leery given the state's yo-yo treatment of the franchise over the years.

"Who would want to bid on this knowing what the state giveth the state, in a fit of pique, in an instant can give away?" Wittstruck said.

With a NYRA official not in attendance, Violette, an ex-officio member of the NYRA Reorganization Board, offered his thoughts on plans for the racing circuit. There have been talks about shuttering Aqueduct and rebuilding Belmont Park; both are problematic, Violette said.

Though NYRA doesn't own or operate the Aqueduct casino, the association, horsemen, and breeders get a healthy chunk of the VLT revenue. Violette believes the best option may be to maintain a racing program at Aqueduct because it "might be the best protection at keeping the revenue" from gaming.

Belmont, he said, isn't conducive for winter racing because of the plant and the position of the track, which faces north and in the winter would be prone to lengthy shadows in the stretch. That likely would impact surface uniformity and maintenance.

As for completely rebuilding and down-sizing Belmont, Violette said Genting several years ago estimated the project at $700 million. NYRA would have to get a substantial amount of money from the casino company to even begin such a project, he said.

Wittstruck and Violette both acknowledged the demonization of winter racing in New York but said losing it would be beyond disruptive to horsemen, employees, and breeders.

"The end of winter racing would ruin the breeding industry in the state," Violette said. "The sport as we know it wouldn't survive. People are very dependent on the revenue they make in December, January, February, and March.

"If a racetrack looks at the economics of shutting down, it needs at least three months. In New York that's your winter racing. That's your season. As soon as you break that cycle the dominoes fall. Winter racing isn't just about slippery parking lots and snow and ice. It's a better product than some would make it out to be."

The New York THA president acknowledged the "horse shortage" in the United States and said horsemen are prepared to race fewer days, but eliminating months at a time in New York isn't the proper course.

"Aqueduct in the winter is as vital as Saratoga in the summer," Violette said.

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