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NYRA To Remain Under State Control Until October 2017

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.


To the disappointment of thoroughbred racing advocates in Saratoga Springs, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers could not reach an agreement at the close of the legislative session to return the New York Racing Association to a private organization.The state will control the organization for another year.

Just last week, John Hendrickson, who recently left his position as a special advisor to Governor Cuomo on the NYRA board in protest, expressed doubts that the organization would be returned to a private non-profit.

“I resigned recently because the governor did not keep his promise. He kept moving the goalpost. It is my assertion that the governor never intended to keep his promise,” said Hendrickson.

In the weeks leading up to the close of the session, the group Concerned Citizens For Saratoga Racing sounded the alarm, backing bills in the legislature that would reprivatize NYRA.

The organization has been under state control since 2012 and had already had its reprivatization deadline extended by a year last October.

Even after the introduction of a reprivatization plan from NYRA’s board of directors and passage of the bills supporting the move in both houses of the legislature, an agreement could be reached in the final hours of the formal session. Lawmakers adjourned the session and aren’t due back until January.

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, a Democrat who represents Saratoga Springs and introduced the reprivatization bill in her chamber, said the disagreement came down to an item in the governor’s reprivatization plan that would have diverted revenues from VLT gaming away from racing and into state coffers.

“In my opinion that would have put the New York Racing Association and thoroughbred racing in jeopardy,” said Woerner.

The Senate version of the bill was introduced by John Bonacic, who chairs the Senate Racing Committee. Sen. Kathy Marchione, who represents Saratoga Springs, was a co-sponsor.

Advocates like Hendrickson had called the VLT revenues a sort-of “mortgage payment” to NYRA from the state in exchange for the $1 billion worth of land under the tracks at Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct.

Georgie Nugent-Lussier, the only voting member of the current NYRA Reorganization Board from Saratoga Springs, was also disappointed in the extension of state control for another year.

“Obviously it’s a frustration that it didn’t get passed in a collaborative way,” said Lussier.

Lussier said NYRA must continue its work to remain profitable. The organization recently paid off a $25 million loan to Genting and is now debt free. The organization is boasting an operating surplus of $3.5 million and is on track to make a profit in 2016.

A statement from the governor’s press office released at the close of the session said of the extension of state control:

“This agreement preserves the valuable public window into the operation of racing and wagering at New York's premiere [sic] racing facilities, and into the use of statutory racing support payments.”

Nugent says the board must continue to improve NYRA, which was plagued by scandal and bankruptcy before the state takeover.

“You know, I’m a huge race fan. Now we take the decision and keep plugging away and operating like we have been and doing the best for racing and the fan experience,” said Lussier.

Todd Shimkus, President of the Saratoga Springs Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Concerned Citizens group, warned of the damages to the local economy uncertainty over NYRA could create. He said he will keep a close watch over how the state handles NYRA operations over the next two summer racing seasons. 

“We will be paying very close attention to how their plan is implemented and what happens to handle and what happens to attendance, and are they doing taking good care of the horses? Are they doing what they said they were going to do for backstretch workers? And if they want to keep control, they need to show – the governor’s office directly – that they’re engaged, involved, and doing the right thing,” said Shimkus.

Shimkus fears the state could even go as far as selling NYRA’s racetracks to the highest bidder if the organization is not returned to a private non-profit.  

Woerner, who maintains the state is not in position to run the racing industry, said the grassroots effort from racing fans and bipartisan approach in the legislature were powerful.

“And we will continue to work hard in that manner and hope to reach a better conclusion for racing by next year.”

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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