New York Committee Meets at Racing Hall

By Jeff Scott
Two months after conducting initial hearings in Albany and New York City, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing was back in public session Thursday at a daylong program held at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.

Thursday's proceedings were divided into two parts. The first consisted of three roundtable discussions designed – in the words of committee member and event organizer Jack Knowlton – "to assist committee members' understanding of critical issues facing the racing industry today." The second session, held in the evening, was given over to members of the public who wished to express their views on the state of racing in New York.

In the first roundtable, panelists discussed New York racing and breeding from various perspectives. For lead presenter Keith Chamblin (NTRA senior vice president for communications), Internet and account wagering represent the keys to racing's future. Pointing out that 90% of wagering on horses now occurs off track, Chamblin said, "We should not focus our energy and resources on trying to get 10,000 fans to come to the racetrack at 1 'clock on a Wednesday afternoon."

Chamblin also stressed the importance of New York racing. "Even with all the turmoil of recent years," he said, "New York racing has remained the best in the country, if not the world. As New York goes, in many ways, so goes the entire industry."

The next presenter, Cary Fotias, a self-described professional gambler and member of the NTRA's Player Panel, also emphasized the importance of technology. "If we play the ostrich game with the Internet like we did with TV in the 50s, we've got no one to blame but ourselves and our leaders," he said. "If we don't take advantage of this new technology, this game is going to die."

Fotias, often in colorful terms, expressed the frustrations of big-time players who he feels are taken for granted by the industry. He mentioned the need for rewards programs, as well as for technology that would enable final odds to be posted before post time. Most important, he called for further reductions in takeout, pointing to the results of a recent study showing that reduced takeout actually increases both handle and net revenue.

Shifting gears toward the end of his presentation, Fotias had a final word of advice for the Ad Hoc Committee. "If you do anything, do not change Saratoga. Leave it alone. If I come here someday and see it has become the Coca-Cola Travers, then Armageddon is near."

Martin Kinsella of the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund spoke next. Kinsella stressed the economic importance of the state's approximately 410 breeding farms, as well as their contributions toward preserving greenspace. He pointed out that in 2005 nearly 40 percent of the starters in races run in New York were state-breds.

Daily Racing Form chairman and publisher Steve Crist, speaking by phone between the first and second roundtables, touched on issues he believed most deserve the attention of whoever ends up with the next franchise. These include the overhaul of OTB and combining it into a single entity; the importance of low takeout rates; and the importance of providing money to "ensure horses will receive responsible care during and after their careers."

Responding to a question, Crist said he hoped the next New York business model would combine the best of both for-profit and not-for-profit approaches. He urged the committee, however, to look at what the influence of two publicly owned companies (presumably Magna Entertainment and Churchill Downs Incorporated) has meant for racing in other states.

"My greatest fear," said Crist, "is that the next franchise (in New York) will be entrusted to an organization whose mission is to create revenue for itself, not for racing and its customers."

The second roundtable addressed integrity issues within the industry, with the focus on medication. Scot Waterman, executive director of the NTRA's Medication and Testing Consortium, discussed the need to establish national medication rules that are "uniform, fair and enforceable." The model rules drawn up by the consortium in 2004 have been adopted by 29 of 38 racing states. The other nine states have shown a positive response, according to Waterman, and he predicted that by the end of 2006, all 38 states will have signed on to the proposed medication standards.

Joe Lynch, director of operations at the NYS Racing and Wagering Board, spoke on security and testing issues. Lynch said the most difficult aspect of drug enforcement is "determining whether a drug positive was a mistake or something that was applied to make the horse run faster or slower. Most of the time we find it was a mistake." He added that the trick was "keeping ahead of the curve," as new substances are showing up all the time.

Jerry Bilinski, owner/breeder and past chairman of the State Racing and Wagering Board, mentioned the need for additional money for education, research and testing. He ranked the welfare of the equine athlete as the most important concern, followed by the integrity of the sport. "Most trainers and horsemen are honest and hard-working," said Bilinski. "Our job is to concentrate on the repeat offenders."

The third roundtable focused on the needs of backstretch employees. Kate Dolan, president of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST) set the tone when she said, "As we have heard, there is considerable concern about the horses. There also needs to be a comparable concern about the people who work with the horses."

Dolan ran through the services BEST provides, which include free health insurance, free health care at clinics at Belmont and Saratoga (seasonal), and substance abuse counseling and treatment. While she and BEST board chairperson Nancy Kelly praised the contributions of NYRA to the program, both said more money was needed.

"The next franchisee has to have to a clear plan," said Kelly. "We need funding from outside the industry."

If most roundtable participants were reluctant to venture an opinion as to who they thought should be awarded the next franchise, many of the people who spoke at the evening Fan Forum were considerably less inhibited – at least when it came to who they thought should not be involved. Magna and Churchill Downs were singled out for special criticism.

Phil Rosen, a horse owner and long-time fan from Brooklyn, spoke for many when he said, "I was down at Gulfstream, and what (Magna) has done down there is a travesty. There isn't a grandstand in the place. Is that what we want up here? We have to keep the fans in mind."

Several speakers complimented the job NYRA has done recently. "I was very critical of NYRA a few years ago, wondering what was going on," said Dominick Rosselli of Albany. "I truly believe NYRA is making a huge effort to make things run well. I'd like to see them continue. Having Magna run things in New York would not be a good thing."

A number of speakers expressed concerns that a new franchise holder might attempt to make changes in Saratoga. "There is a passion for racing here that has stood the test of time," said Racing Museum director Peter Hammell. "Please do not allow the unique character of Saratoga Race Course to change."

Ad Hoc Committee member Bernadette Castro addressed these concerns when she said, "I can tell you that this committee is extremely sensitive to the heritage of Saratoga."

Dr. Jack Whitney, admitting he had been critical of NYRA in the past, said he worried about Magna or Churchill Downs "getting their hands on" Saratoga. After saying he thought New York racing should continue to be run by a not-for-profit entity, Whitney added, "For those of you who think a for-profit organization should run things in New York, I have a one-word answer for you: Enron."

Once again, Castro was ready with a response. "I don't think it is the judgment of anyone on this committee that (the next franchise holder) should be a for-profit organization. We are extremely protective of the three racetracks." Then, addressing the possibility of slots (or VLTs) coming to Saratoga, she said, "It's all about the sport. The tail should not wag the dog, or in this case, the horse."

Other speakers spoke about the need for better customer service at New York tracks; the need to keep the three tracks together; and the need to preserve the integrity of the game.

"The players and the fans have been under-represented," said Tom Armello. "Without the owners and the horsemen, you don't have a game. But without the bettors, the game is over. Cheaters have to go. The bettors have to be protected."

Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, spoke on the need for the industry to do more to provide for retired racehorses. The organization currently cares for approximately 1,300 thoroughbreds in a number of states.

"It would take a small amount of money," she said. "But we can't have it be voluntary funding anymore. We tried that, and it didn't work. It has to be a mandatory scheme, part of the racing business."

Toward the end of the Fan Forum, the question of ownership of New York tracks came up. Castro was unequivocal in summing up the state's case. "New York owns the racetracks," she insisted. "We feel at the appropriate time we can make that case. We have a constitutional law issue here, but I think the State of New York is on firm ground."