The New York Racing Association, created more than 50 years ago to bolster the Thoroughbred industry, took on a new life Sept. 12 with the formal approval by the state of a new 25-year franchise to exclusively operate Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga racetracks.
The backing by the state came with vows of stronger oversight of NYRA’s operations by state regulators and an end to NYRA’s longstanding ownership claims of the three tracks. New York state is also giving NYRA $105 million to help it emerge from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
“This is going to enormously enhance Throughbred racing in our state,’’ C. Steven Duncker, the NYRA chairman, said Sept. 12 in a conference call.
The state’s top racing regulator, who butted heads with NYRA while a recent member of the state Senate, said the confusion that has reigned over the franchise is now over. “There’s a chance for a new beginning. The ambiguity over who owns what and where the franchise is going to be awarded is all over. And we start sort of a new day here,’’ said John Sabini, chairman of the Racing and Wagering Board.
The agency earlier approved a whole series of ministerial resolutions for the new NYRA corporation on everything from race dates to stewards.
Sabini, who represented Aqueduct in the Senate, which he left earlier this summer to join the racing board, said he hopes NYRA “understands we want them to realize that we conduct racing for more than just the sake of racing…meaning the taxpayers have to benefit if we’re going to do all this as well as the state sanctioning this pari-mutuel wagering on races.’’
Sabini said the governor made clear to him when he took the job that he wants the racing agency to consider the “general welfare of the people of the state of New York’’ in its oversight of the industry.
Still uncertain is the future of the long-stalled casino at Aqueduct; state officials have still not settled on an operator for the facility, which will feature 4,500 VLTs, between three bidding entities vying for the lucrative contract. NYRA for months had been claiming it could not emerge from bankruptcy without the casino questions being resolved.
Duncker said he is confident NYRA can operate in the black. “We need and want the VLT money, but with the deal struck we feel we can run for a substantial amount of time,’’ he said.
The transfer of the racetrack property deeds from NYRA to the state of New York closes an often bitter chapter in the roller coaster relations between the racing monopoly and its state regulators. NYRA was believed even by many of its insiders to be living on borrowed time following a remarkable run of legal and financial troubles in recent years. But, thanks in part to the political muscle of many of its key supporters, NYRA was able to beat back its competitors and win a 25-year franchise extension.
In return, NYRA agreed to some mostly minor new oversight mandates by the state, including additional government officials being appointed to its board of trustees. The franchise was agreed to by the state Legislature in February. Two of the key negotiators in the whole deal – Eliot Spitzer and Joseph Bruno – weren’t around to witness the final approval; Spitzer, the former governor, resigned in March following a sex scandal and Bruno, the former Senate majority leader who had an up and down relationship with NYRA, retired earlier this summer.
NYRA has operated the three tracks since 1955. Besides the direct state aid, NYRA also had $135 million in past state debt written off. NYRA officials bristled at talk of NYRA getting a “bailout’’ from the state; Duncker noted the state is getting 900 acres of valuable racetrack land.