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Group Cautions Against Potential NYRA Reprivatization Plan

The New York Racing Association (NYRA) hopes to continue to operate the Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct tracks.
The New York Racing Association (NYRA) hopes to continue to operate the Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct tracks.

Some Saratoga Springs area residents have come together to criticize what they say is a move by the Cuomo administration to retain public control of the New York Racing Association, the organization that oversees thoroughbred racing in the state.

The group Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing says a proposal being circulated by the governor would “exert his control over NYRA and the future of our state’s Thoroughbred racing industry.”

Though there is no plan committed to writing, the group says they obtained the information through lobbyists, legislators, and other avenues. For the past four years, NYRA has been under state control through a re-organization board overseen by private and public appointees.

Last month, the board submitted its recommendations for reprivatization. NYRA is supporting two options; one would replace the reorganization board with 15 private members; a second would place four publicly appointed leaders on the 15-member board, including two recommended by the governor, one by the Senate, and one by the Assembly. A third option would leave the current board in place for another year.

According to the group, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal would allow the governor to appoint five of the 15 board members. With one member each appointed by the Senate and Assembly, 7 or 15 members would be appointed by state officials.

The plan would also reportedly transfer VLT revenues from capital improvements at Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga, to the state’s general fund. The group says more powers given to various state agencies would potentially threaten NYRA’s budget and operations.

Concerned Citizens co-chair Maureen Lewi…

“We’re not in favor of cutting that money at all. It was set up as an agreement four years ago. And we think that everyone needs to live up to that agreement and continue those VLT payments for capital improvements, purses, and all the initial designations,” said Lewi.

The group is working closely with local state lawmakers, including Senators Hugh Farley and Kathy Marchione, as well as Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner.

Todd Shimkus, another Concerned Citizens member, is also president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, which has continually advocated for NYRA’s re-privatization. Shimkus is hopeful the lawmakers can bring their message to Albany.

“They’ve got a job of also trying to negotiate with Senators and Assembly folks from some other areas that have some other interests. So they’re trying to balance what we want locally with what’s possible in Albany. And I think we’re going to end up in the right place,” said Shimkus.

The Senators signed on to a bill backed by Senator John Bonacic, Chair of the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee. The bill would require the NYRA board be composed of 15 members with two appointed by the governor; one by the Assembly Speaker; one by the Temporary President of the Senate; one appointed by New York Throughbred Breeders Inc.; one by the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association; the CEO of NYRA; and the remaining eight to be appointed by the Executive Committee of the current NYRA board.

Marchione says another provision would require the NYRA board represent the communities where tracks are located.

“Additionally, we believe it’s important to have a full-time resident who lives where the three respective tracks are; that being Queens, Nassau and Saratoga,” said Marchione.

Bonacic believes his bill is the right decision, saying in a statement, "The board has done its job in rerouting the ship, and the time has come to transition NYRA back to private control."

In a response to the Concerned Citizens list of recommendations, Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said in a statement:

“Governor Cuomo and the Legislature saved NYRA from yet another bankruptcy in 2012 and installed a Board and management team that has brought success on every metric, while being accountable to the racing industry, taxpayers and host communities – including Saratoga Springs. The Governor will ensure the future of NYRA continues this trajectory of success.”

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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