Franchise Delay Hangs Over Trainers

New York trainers are apprehensive with the franchise question still unanswered.

by Karen M. Johnson

Aqueduct’s winterized inner track opens Nov. 28, but not without trepidation from horsemen concerning the future of New York Thoroughbred racing.

The New York Racing Association’s franchise expires Dec. 31, and with no plans made yet for what will happen beyond that date, some trainers are wondering if racing will continue Jan 1, 2008.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has recommended NYRA continue racing at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga. The Republican-led Senate, which must approve Spitzer’s plan, has publicly said it does not endorse his recommendation. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno believes more racing entities should be involved in running Thoroughbred racing in New York.

“We’re at the 10th hour, with the holidays coming up, there isn’t a lot of time,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said Nov. 26. “This is a serious situation, a big worry, and a definite concern.

“The politicians must understand that horses are not automobiles that you are able to leave in the garage for a period of time. If there isn’t anybody (at NYRA) to even keep the track open or pick up the manure, we are all going to be gone.”

McLaughlin, who plans on leaving at least 50 horses in New York for the winter, said,  if necessary, he could bring some of his horses to Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida, and others to training centers in Ocala, Fla.

“I haven’t made for-sure plans,” he said. “I’m lucky that I have wealthy owners that can afford the $2,000 van ride to Florida, but it’s not going to be okay for some other trainers.”

Mike Hushion, longtime trainer for Barry Schwartz, NYRA’s former chairman of the board of trustees and chief executive officer, said there is anxiety among horsemen.

“In the last couple of weeks, that tone has picked up,” Hushion said. “I think as (Dec. 31) gets closer, we realize it is a real possibility (that racing could shut down). It has become a game of chicken with NYRA and the state, and no one is so sure what will happen.”

Trainer Bruce Levine, who has been a mainstay during the winter months at Aqueduct since 1979, said he is hopeful the franchise issue will be settled before there is any disruption to racing.

“Well, it is definitely out there, but I think it will get resolved,” Levine said. “No question, it would be a bump in the road (if racing shut down), but I’m trying not to fret about it. It’s not life-threatening. It’s a bump in the road; you will just have to get around it.

“There is a lot a stake, so I think it will get resolved. Maybe the track will be shut a few days, but it will get fixed. I don’t see racing in New York ceasing forever.”

P.J. Campo, NYRA’s racing secretary, said his office is preparing for the winter meet as usual. “I’m doing what I normally would do, and that’s to continue what I’ve been doing,” he said.

Campo indicated there are some new players for Aqueduct’s inner-track meet, including Florida-based trainer David Fawkes and Julian Canet, who races his horses on the Mid-Atlantic circuit.

“Some of the New York guys will be stronger than usual,” Campo said. “Todd (Pletcher) and Kiaran (McLaughlin) are leaving a sizeable amount of horses here, and some other trainers are bringing more horses than usual. We will have a quantity of horses.

“I think last year we got hurt with Fair Grounds reopening after being closed the prior year. We got hurt when it reopened; probably lost 10% to 20% from our population to the Fair Grounds. And then Philly Park was just taking off with the slots. This year, I think we are in pretty good shape.”

The one-mile inner track is typically used through the middle of March. From a handicapping perspective, horses that had been competing around one turn in mile races will now be navigating the distance around two turns.  Another change with the surface switch is the loss of seven-furlong races.