New York Lawmaker Plans NYRA Discussion

Sen. John Bonacic plans discussion on NYRA future.

An influential New York state senator will take testimony this week about what the Thoroughbred industry envisions for the future of the New York Racing Association.

Before the Jan. 17 Senate racing and wagering committee in Albany begins though, the industry already has a united answer about what it wants: an end to the state control of the NYRA board.

"At the end of the last legislative session there was a vibrant, but rushed, discussion about the future governance model of NYRA, and unfortunately no agreement was reached," said Sen. John Bonacic, a Republican who chairs the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee. "It is my desire to bring together all the stakeholders to discuss this important issue in hopes of finding agreement on a plan that moves NYRA and the New York racing industry forward."

The panel approves or rejects all racing-related matters before they get to the full Senate floor for a vote.

At issue is the state's continuing domination of the NYRA board during what the state calls a "reorganization" period. In May 2012 Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a state takeover of NYRA, which faced a number of controversies during his first year in office. The oversight period was to last three years.

"We know that long-term this is not a venture for government to run,'' Cuomo said at the time of creating a new 17-member board, a majority of whom would report to Cuomo.

But the end of the third year came and went with no plan for NYRA's return to private hands. And then last year, Cuomo proposed a plan, which included him still retaining sizeable control over the board and a controversial effort to shift to the state government some of the money that goes each year to NYRA and its horsemen from revenues derived by the Resorts World casino at NYRA's Aqueduct racetrack.

Lawmakers pushed back, and in June with the end of the 2016 session looming, approved a simple extender of the original 2012 law. That extender keeps NYRA in the state's hands until late 2017.

As of late Friday afternoon, no representatives of NYRA or the Cuomo administration were on the list of those who will testify before Bonacic's committee. The governor last week delivered six separate State of the State addresses, speaking for 4 1/2 hours; he did not mention the NYRA matter in any of them. That has left some industry leaders worried Cuomo is going to be silent on the topic in his new 2017 state budget, which he is due to unveil this week in Albany.

There are two times in a session when such controversial issues as NYRA's future are likely to be considered: state budget season, which normally wraps up at the end of March; and at the end of the session in June. In both cases, issues wholly unconnected to one another find themselves being traded for in order to help close broader budget or end-of-session dealings.

This week's Senate hearing is by invitation only for speakers. Those on a preliminary witness list include Rick Violette, president of the New York Horsemen's Association; Jeffrey Cannizzo, executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders; Cynthia Hollowood, a member of the Saratoga Race Course Community Advisory Board; and Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce who also will be speaking as a member of the Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing.

"We're going to share with the Senate committee the reasons why keeping this promise is again so important,'' said Shimkus, whose Concerned Citizens group has been among the more vocal proponents of ending the state oversight period at NYRA. The group wants the state to adhere to the provisions of an agreement made with former Gov. Eliot Spitzer in which NYRA gave up its longstanding claims of ownership of Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Race Course in return for a long-term deal to retain its exclusive franchise agreement to run Thoroughbred racing at the tracks. 

"We will again be pushing for a clean bill, whether it is part of the budget or a stand-alone bill, that focuses on creating a public-private partnership to govern NYRA, with the majority being from the private sector as well as honoring the franchise agreement and preserving the investments in thoroughbred horse racing it guarantees," Shimkus said.

The NYRA control issue has been a particularly touchy one for the Saratoga community. 

"We know horse racing. We love horse racing. It is a key part of our community's culture and our region's economy," Shimkus said. "We've been doing this for more than 150 years now. So, we know what it takes to improve this key industry for the benefit of our community, our region and the state of New York. We're pleased the Senate recognizes this and has asked for our input."