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Comptroller Audits NYRA, Hendrickson Leaves Board Ahead Of Privatization Decision

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

John Hendrickson, a special advisor to Governor Andrew Cuomo on the NYRA reorganization board and husband of Saratoga socialite Marylou Whitney, recently left his seat.

“Marylou and I love Saratoga. And I was appointed to help give a voice to Saratoga. But it was clear that Governor Cuomo was not interested in my opinions or my advice,” said Hendrickson.

Hendrickson is leaving NYRA in protest of the governor’s proposals over the future of the NYRA Board. NYRA has been under state control since 2012, overseen by a reorganization board that includes public and private appointees.

After a year-long delay imposed by Governor Cuomo, the organization has submitted its reprivatization plan for consideration by the legislature. Meanwhile, the governor is considering a plan that has drawn criticism from racing advocates, who contend it would transfer VLT revenues from capital improvements at Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga to the state’s general fund. More oversight would be given to various state agencies and 7 of 15 members of NYRA’s would be publicly appointed.

While NYRA for years was tainted by debt and scandal until a state takeover, Hendrickson says the governor’s plan would hamper the organization in the future.

“NYRA does not have a great reputation. They made a lot of mistakes, some of them very inexcusable. But most of them done by mistake, whereas this government and the governor’s bill, they’re trying to hurt racing intentionally. They’re not trying help racing. And we’re not asking for government’s help, we’re asking him to honor the deals that were made and not take away money that was deserved to go to racing,” said Hendrickson.

Hendrickson pointed out NYRA’s past exchange of $1 billion worth of land controlled by the tracks to the state for VLT revenues and the franchise agreement.  He said any use of that money is like taking away “mortgage payments” the state owes to the racing association, designed to keep down costs for fans.

Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing member and Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus said Hendrickson’s exit from NYRA is “troubling.”

“His long-term view and his planning for the future is going to be missed by this community. The only good news from our advocacy to this is John remaining an outspoken advocate for Saratoga, no question about that. He is telling the truth and he is doing everything he can to make sure whatever happens in Albany next week is helpful, not hurtful,” said Shimkus.

Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi released a statement last week, responding to the Concerned Citizens’ group’s criticisms of the governor’s proposals saying:

“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.”

Meanwhile, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has released an audit that calls NYRA’s financial future “uncertain.”

DiNapoli’s office says without VLT revenues, NYRA would have significant operating losses. Office spokesman Mark Johnson says NYRA needs a long-term plan for financial stability.

“As the financial oversight board of NYRA has also recommended, Comptroller DiNapoli’s auditors are suggesting that NYRA develop a detailed plan to eliminate the annual deficits from the racing operations that it is facing. The auditors also found some questionable expenses that they would like eliminated and just determine general industry practices that would help improve the situation for NYRA’s racing operations,” said Johnson.

NYRA communications director Pat McKenna said in a statement, “The purpose of the OSC’s audit was to determine if NYRA received, spent and accounted for its revenues and expenses properly, and the OSC’s report clearly states that we did. This finding has been previously reported by our accounting firm, KPMG, who has issued a ‘clean audit’ for each of the last four years.”

NYRA disputes the auditors’ claims of questionable spending, says it has taken steps to boost revenues, and pointed out its $1.7 million surplus from racing operations in 2014, $3.6 million in 2015, and its projected $2.3 million surplus for 2016.

Last year’s banner racing season was bolstered by American Pharoah’s stunning Triple Crown win, and later defeat at the Travers at Saratoga.

Shimkus said while there’s no Triple Crown hope this year, the popularity of racing at the Spa will still depend on other factors, mostly the weather.

“We’re not going to have the Super Bowl here this year, we’re not going to have a Triple Crown horse running in Saratoga, and I think that does take some of the luster off what’s going to happen. But at the same time, Saratoga is well known as the place that everyone wants to race. It’s the summer place to be,” said Shimkus.

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