Newest NYRA board: a match made in heaven?

The first meeting of the new NYRA board felt a little like a first date. Everybody seemed intent on making a good first impression; controversy was avoided; common ground was sought; and at the end, everybody said that it would be great to get together again, and soon.

Board president David Skorton did exactly what a new leader is expected to: he followed the agenda, he listened, he affirmed concerns. “We’ll make sure we come back to that,” was a frequent refrain. “It will be a privilege to learn from you in doing this service,” he opened.

Still, moments of tension, glimpses of rifts surfaced. This date was, after all, set up, by a not-so-avuncular Uncle Andrew, who might not care so much about whether you all get along as long as it’s good for the family.

While Skorton impressed upon the board the high regard with which the State of New York holds racing, and the state government’s eagerness to work cooperatively with the board, veteran board members seemed not quite so sure – at times, the date meeting took on Montague/Capulet overtones, the participants representing long-feuding families, returning board members outwardly critical of the role the state has played thus far in racing.

As NYRA secretary Ken Handal explained, in February the New York State Racing and Wagering Board will cease to exist, merging with the state lottery into the State Gaming Commission; he went on to outline other state organizations involved with racing, including the Franchise Oversight Board, the Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund, and half a dozen other agencies with some connection to racing, which led returning board member Leonard Riggio to point out that Governor Cuomo had pledged to “relieve NYRA of the morass of regulatory organizations” and to work with NYRA to streamline oversight, clearly to him a consummation devoutly to be wished, and about which he seemed to be skeptical.

Riggio was not alone: through the course of the afternoon, more than one veteran board member expressed frustration at having wanted in the past to enact changes, only to be thwarted by the State. Skorton suggested a new era of cooperation; he’s got his work cut out for him to erase entrenched suspicion.

If the State and NYRA are becoming uneasy bedfellows, Genting and NYRA are a once-promising relationship that seems to have gone badly wrong. When Riggio declared that he won’t go to Aqueduct because the condition of the facility is “unacceptable,” NYRA president Ellen McClain explained, with no small degree of frustration, that Genting, the landlord of the physical plant at Aqueduct, seems to have taken a page from the playbook of some New York City building owners and is neglecting its responsibilities to keep the place clean.

Nor has Genting made good on its plan to create a 24,000 square foot simulcast facility at Aqueduct in exchange for space on the ground floor. Longshots was slated to open this fall in the space formerly known as the Man o’War Room on the second floor; one observer recently characterized the space as looking like one of the neighborhoods through which Sandy swept in October. Construction of the $5 million facility is estimated to take six months, with demolition slated to begin this week. Board member Michael Dubb said that NYRA’s Glenn Kozak is still waiting for an official timeline on the project from Genting.

Still, McClain seemed determined to make the relationship with Genting work, particularly with regard to exposing people in the casino to racing. “We’d love to do more cross-marketing with Resorts World,” she said.

While the board seemed content to go along with pretty much everything Skorton asked for—once board members were satisfied that wagering prohibitions would not apply to them, the motion passed unanimously, as did every other one—new board member Bobby Flay dispensed with pleasantries when he declared that NYRA’s racing product was “not great.” “We don’t have a product people want to come see,” he proclaimed.

Though one is often advised to refrain from controversial subjects in the early stages of acquaintance, no one, it seems, told Flay that.

In welcome and long-awaited news, returning board member Michael Dubb revealed plans to upgrade backstretch housing at both Saratoga and Belmont. “There’s nothing,” he said, “more important than everyone having a decent bed to sleep on.”

Renovations at two existing dorms at Saratoga are expected to be completed when the Oklahoma opens next spring; following a detailed explanation of the improvements, new board member Jane Rosenthal inquired, “Are they sustainable? In terms of green technology?”

“Ummm…no….” responded Dubb.

OK, no, he didn’t…but he might as well have, as he pointed out the age of the buildings on the Saratoga backstretch and noted that green technology will be easier to implement when new dorms are built. Construction on them is scheduled to begin at Belmont by fall 2013 with completion in spring 2014.

Perhaps encouragingly, veteran NYRA board members suggested that the next scheduled meeting, in March, is too far away and another should be planned earlier in order to make progress on initiatives, among them one raised by Riggio, who expressed his concern about the inaccessibility of NYRA Rewards on major race days like the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont. Waiting until March to meet, he suggested, wouldn’t leave enough time to make sure that the situation is rectified before the big spring races.

So, they met for longer than planned, and they’ll see each other again earlier than expected—two markers of first date success. Skorton promised that any future meetings at which a decision is made (with some exceptions, such as real estate and employment matters, and “trade secrets”) will be public, and that’s not going to be easy. At some point, the politeness, affability, and cooperation that characterized this first board meeting will wane; at some point, things will get contentious; at some point, a little privacy might be a good thing to foster this new relationship.

But as Skorton made clear, the stewardship of New York racing has entered a new era.

“We have a long, proud tradition,” he said. “We’re going to set some new traditions, and do things in a little different fashion.”

“But,” he went on, “what’s not going to change is our devotion to the highest standards in Thoroughbred racing and equine health and safety.”

The schedule of 2013 board meetings is expected to be announced soon. It was not immediately clear who was supposed to call whom.

A video archive of the December 12 meeting, along with the meeting book, financial presentation, and Saratoga 150 presentation are here.

4 thoughts on “Newest NYRA board: a match made in heaven?

  1. A balanced recommendation to the NYRA board would be Eldegard Wulfert PHD, Dean of Arts and Science at U/Albany. She has for years been involved in the psychology of gambling and presents an impartial to the other side of gambling.

    • Mary, I think the board is now complete–the appointments were made earlier this fall.

      Jeff: There’s been an awful lot of coverage of this meeting elsewhere, so I thought that a full report would be rather redundant–not to mention unreadably long. It’s true that this isn’t meant to represent the meeting in its entirety.

  2. I meant the meeting via webcast . . very informative and spirited . . in fact . . not easily accessible to those ‘internet illiterate’ . . if this meeting can spread . . it will open the dialogue ten fold . . Regards Jeff

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