By Karen M. Johnson
Relief, tempered with caution about the future, was the word among some of New York’s owners and breeders the day after it was announced that the New York Racing Association struck a deal with the state to operate racing at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga for the next 25 years.
“Goods news because it was getting a little bit gloomy around here,” said Suzie O’Cain, manager of Highcliff Farm in Delanson, N.Y., and vice president of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders. “I thought it would come down to a last-minute deal. New York is the premier racing spot in the country, and that is not an exaggeration. I feel we will emerge stronger and more powerful from this. This will give us a chance to regroup and have a new business model for years to come.”
Martin G. Kinsella, the executive director of the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund, said he was pleased with the numbers in the legislation to extend NYRA’s franchise regarding revenue from VLTs to breeders. Once the VLT operation is in place at Aqueduct, breeders will receive 1% percent of the revenue during the first year; 1.25% the second; and 1.5% thereafter.
“From the breeders’ perspective, we are very happy that the VLT numbers for the most part were restored to what they had been,” Kinsella said.
Kinsella said a prior agreement between NYRA, the Fund, and the breeders called for 1.25% to breeders for the first five years of VLT operation and 1.5% after that.
“That was the framework before Governor (Eliot) Spitzer’s memorandum of understanding that came out last year,” Kinsella said. “We have to live with the decrease in the first year, but we hit 1.5% in the third year, opposed to the sixth year.”
Phil Birsh, a longtime owner and breeder with a breeding farm outside of Saratoga Springs, said he believes NYRA’s first priority will be racing, whereas the other bidders for the franchise would have put too much emphasis on the VLT operation.
“The other players would have been transfixed on the VLTs for profit; I was nervous about new people coming in,” Birsh said. “You look at Philadelphia Park and it says, ‘Philadelphia Park Casino,’ and, oh yes, racetrack, too. I’m very sensitive to that subtlety. It scares a lot of people that racing could take a backseat to VLTs. VLTs aren’t going to produce jobs for people on the farms. I trust NYRA will do a good job.”
Charles Harris, a New York-based owner and breeder, said he isn’t so sure the VLTs will be the panacea that many believe.
“I’m a little skeptical about a great bonanza developing from this,” Harris said. “I’ll believe it when I see it. So far the numbers have been disappointing at Gulfstream and Yonkers. I think in the long run, we need to attract people to racing and betting.”
The legislation calls for a revamped board of directors at NYRA, which will include the addition of a breeder appointed by Spitzer.
“I think it is a good thing and should have been that way all along,” Kinsella said.
Doug Koch, the owner of Berkshire Stud in Pine Plains, N.Y., said the only way it will be beneficial to have a breeder on the board is if that person is deeply involved in the business.
“If it follows the (Breeding) Fund’s model, it will be some guy who owns one mare,” Koch said. “That’s a tenacious connection to the industry; we need someone actively involved.”
Koch also said he hopes the state, which now owns the land Belmont Park sits on after NYRA relinquished its claim to obtain the franchise, will use it wisely.
“Hopefully, Belmont will become a destination, with hotels and restaurants,” Koch said. “Belmont is between two major airports, so let the crowds who come out to see the horses race have other reasons to come out.”
Kinsella and other industry players from the Saratoga area attended a Feb. 14 press conference, organized by Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Also in attendance were Saratoga’s Mayor Scott Johnson and Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce president Joe Dalton.
In a statement distributed at the press conference, Bruno said the passage of the legislation “ensures that the State of New York shall pay all of the property taxes on the Saratoga Racecourse, preventing any impact on the taxpayers of the City and the County of Saratoga. More importantly, the new NYRA will provide protection and maintenance of all of the buildings and landscaped features of historic, architectural or cultural significance of the race track.”
Kinsella said members of the Saratoga community are happy they can move on now with plans for the 2008 racing season.
“Reserved seats at the track, (home) rentals for the season, hotel reservations; those things can all move forward now,” Kinsella said. “We are all glad (the deal) is done and applaud the people involved that racing didn’t stop.”