NY Horse Industry Testifies at Senate Hearing

Representatives of the Thoroughbred industry testified Feb. 3 before various New York Senate committees looking into the state of the horse racing industry. The following edited remarks were sent to The Blood-Horse.

Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association:

“We represent 5,000 owners and trainers currently competing at the New York Racing Association tracks. But they are just a fraction of the community supported by New York Thoroughbred racing. Statewide, there are tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the industry—from the backstretch workers to those employed by feed companies, vanning services, and equine medical professionals. We have the clerks and the people who work the concession stands at the tracks, the maintenance and security crews, and that’s not to mention those hard at work at the training centers and breeding farms in New York.

“The impact of the sport in our state grows from there. New York boasts racing that is second to none. If you want to see the best horses, you go to Saratoga Race Course and Belmont Park. Thousands of people do just that every year, boosting the local economies. It would be hard to imagine Elmont, N.Y., without Belmont Park, or Saratoga Springs without its premier summer race meet.

“But even more important than that is the billions—and that’s billion with a ‘B’—bet on racing in New York. It is bet on New York racing because it is the best in the country. Period. The majority of horseplayers now watch racing via satellite TV, and they make their wagers on the Internet. They are no longer limited to betting on the local product. They shop for the highest quality, and they find that in New York.

“There are more grade I races in the state than anywhere else, drawing the finest and fastest Thoroughbreds from across the country and around the world. There’s good reason why 18 of the last 20 champions crowned Horse of the Year raced in New York. The fact that Rachel Alexandra trounced fillies at Belmont and beat the boys at Saratoga while Zenyatta never left California undoubtedly convinced voters to give the 2009 Horse of the Year title to Rachel.

“Last year, there was $14.3 billion bet on Thoroughbred racing in America. Less than 5% of the 50,000-plus races in North America in 2009 were held in New York—yet more than 18% of those wagers ($2.2 billion)—was bet on racing in New York. You don’t have to be a racing expert to know that the big players focus their attention—and their money—on New York because we offer a superior product, and you don’t have to be a mathematician to understand the importance of that revenue to the state’s economy.

“But that revenue could disappear if New York racing isn’t allowed to thrive. The best horses are here because the best purses are here. If the purses decline, the horses will go elsewhere. It’s that simple.

“It is hard enough to make ends meets in this business. As it is, 90% of horse owners lose money every year. Revenue has already been hit by the recession, and now (New York City Off-Track Betting Corp.) has proposed a plan that will cut purse funds by another 15%. The purse money available would drop to what it was nearly 25 years ago. That’s just not workable. New York racing will be crippled by a cut like that.

“This is a highly mobile business, and the people paying the bills aren’t necessarily the wealthy owners of years ago. Gone are the Vanderbilts and the Mellons, replaced in large part by hard-working people who have decided to take their discretionary income and buy a horse or two. They can’t afford to participate in an industry where they have zero chance of economic survival. Horse owners aren’t looking to make a fortune, but, if revenue falls, they will take their stables and move them to states where services are less expensive and purses are higher. With this exodus, the thousands of jobs, the billions in revenue, the millions in tax revenue, the green space, all will follow. Again: Just imagine Elmont without Belmont Park.”

Jeffrey Cannizzo, executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders:

“There are two main factors that enhance the market value of New York-breds: the New York Breeding and Development Fund, which gives cash awards to breeders and owners of New York-breds, and (New York Racing Association) racing, which offers tremendous opportunities for New York-breds to race. It is neither hyperbole or boastful to say that NYRA’s racing is the best in the country, with the largest purses and highest caliber of competition.”

“The once-thriving New York breeding industry is in crisis. In the down U.S. economy, Thoroughbred sales took a serious hit nationwide. Also, last year saw an approximately 10% decrease in wagering handles. Finally, we come to the most recent crisis: the insolvency of NYCOTB, the last element in a perfect storm of adversity for breeders. Let me speak plainly and for the record. If NYCOTB does not continue its statutory payments to the industry, breeding and racing in New York will become a thing of the past

“You are all aware I am sure how seriously the delay (in operating video lottery terminals at Aqueduct) hurts our industry. The good news, the nine-year-awaited announcement last week is a step in the right direction, and we thank those officials involved. The bad news, the damage created by the nine-year delay has and continues to be devastating to say the least.

“Call it a cliché if you must, but (the NYCOTB restructuring plan) would be the last nail in the coffin for the once-thriving vibrant breeding industry in the state of New York. VLTs would not offset the damage. And it doesn’t need to happen. The solutions to this crisis are in the hands of our elected leaders. An entire industry looks to you to ensure that Thoroughbreds do not become a distant memory in a state that has consistently dominated the track.”

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