NY Chairman Has Harsh Words For Racing

The new top regulator of racing in New York state offered a tough assessment of an industry he says is in decline in many ways because of its own doing.

John Sabini, confirmed Aug. 8 by the state Senate as the new chairman of the state Racing and Wagering Board, said the physical conditions of racetracks turn off many would-be patrons--including himself--and that the industry is not doing a good enough job marketing itself to compete with other forms of gambling. He talked of owners that today are too quickly retiring horses to breeding, leaving little chance to excite potential fans to a well-known Thoroughbred.

And Sabini, who until Aug. 8 was a state senator from Queens, provided a harsh pep talk to the New York Racing Association. He criticized NYRA, for instance, for not doing a better job at promoting a recent race at Belmont Park featuring Curlin, which he said attracted only a lackluster audience.

Sabini said he wants NYRA to be more aware of its responsibility to the state, which awarded it an exclusive franchise and needs to get more--financially speaking--out of NYRA.

“It’s not just a private club,’’ Sabini said. “They need to be pushed a little. They’re not just doing this for the benefit of their own board."

Sabini’s comments came at a confirmation hearing by the Senate Racing Committee. Several hours later the Queens Democrat was unanimously approved as the racing board’s new chairman. He then resigned his Senate seat.

Sabini, who has served as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Racing Committee, talked of an industry “at a crossroads.’’ And he said he saw his role not just as an industry regulator to ensure the integrity of racing, but also serving “as a watchdog for the taxpayers.’’

“We don’t run races so horse owners can watch their horses race,’’ he told the Senate panel, noting the major investment the state has in the industry.

Most immediate on his plate is a decision, which he acknowledged has been coming “slowly,’’ to award development rights to an operator of the long-planned casino at Aqueduct. Three bidders are vying for the 4,500-slot facility, and he said a decision by Gov. David Paterson and legislative leaders is “imminent.’’

Lawmakers also peppered him on Belmont, which many legislators and local officials want to also be home to a casino. “Why are we saying no?’’ Senate Racing Committee chairman William Larkin asked Sabini.

A plan to open a casino at Belmont has been blocked by assembly speaker Sheldon Silver.

Sabini said the administration will be focusing on the future of Belmont once the Aqueduct casino issue is resolved. He talked of its many real estate possibilities at a facility that he said includes a large amount of unused land.

The new regulator again pushed an agenda that includes consolidating some functions now handled separately by individual tracks and OTBs in the state. The industry might also have to consider fewer racing dates. And stronger marketing programs are desperately needed to help the industry survive, he said.

“We need to get back to understanding we need to interest more people’’ in racing, Sabini said.

Even the way tracks look are turning off would-be patrons, Sabini said. Despite being a self-proclaimed major sports fan, Sabini said he is not a regular track patron despite his proximity to NYRA’s two downstate tracks. “I don’t often go to the tracks because (they’re) not attractive enough...that’s not a New York problem. That’s a national problem.’’

Sabini, nominated by Gov. David Paterson, replaces Daniel Hogan as the board’s chairman.