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Push For NYRA Privatization Continues

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

Members of the thoroughbred racing industry testified in Albany this week, urging lawmakers and Governor Andrew Cuomo to re-privative the New York Racing Association. After months of delays, the governor has put re-privatization in his 2018 budget plan. 

The Senate racing committee heard testimony Tuesday from well-known figures in New York thoroughbred racing and Saratoga Springs.

Senator John Bonacic opened the meeting saying he was concerned for the breeders and horsemen in the state. Bonacic said he was disappointed by a proposal last year by Governor Cuomo to reduce NYRA funding by $13 million.

Bonacic said the cut would have affected job retention in an industry that supports 33,000 jobs in New York.

“When he’s investing these kinds of monies in the film tax credit, he’s investing these kinds of monies in Start-Up, and he wants to cut the horsemen and breeders $13 million? When for the past two years they’ve been doing quite well, showing a profit…I’m concerned about it,” said Bonacic.

NYRA, which oversees racing operations at Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct, has been under state control for the past several years. The takeover came amid declining revenues, attendance, and a former board rocked with scandal.

While under state control, NYRA has turned itself around with two years of operating in the black and new investments in the tracks and betting operations.

But the calls to bring the board back to a private non-profit continued as the transition was delayed for two years by Governor Cuomo.

A bill to re-privatize the agency passed both houses of the state legislature last year but lawmakers could not come to an agreement with the governor before the end of the legislative session.

Senator Kathy Marchione, whose district includes Saratoga Race Course, said the uncertainty is hurting the industries built around racing.

“This perpetual state of limbo for NYRA isn’t serving any practical purpose, in fact, it’s doing real harm. The continued delay comes at a price. The cost to our racing industry and economy could cost tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Marchione.

Testimony in support of re-privatization Tuesday came from two ex-oficio members of the NYRA re-organization board, Jeffrey Cannizzo, Executive Director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc., and Rick Violette, Jr., President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

Prior to the state takeover, both were voting members of the NYRA board, said Cannizzo.

“There’s no reason that your stakeholders with the biggest stake and investment in this industry shouldn’t have full-fledged voting rights on the board. It’s something that we’ve been actively pursuing, it’s something the Senate introduced last year as well. And we hope it happens to continue here as well,” said Cannizzo.

Cannizzo said, nationally, horse racing is contracting, but the industry is being drawn to New York. He said with certainty over the future of New York racing in place, investment would jump and more farmland would be purchased.

Testimony in support of re-privatization was also heard from Todd Shimkus, President of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, and Cynthia Hollowood, who manages the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs and is a member of the Saratoga Race Course Community Advisory Board.

Just hours after Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Governor Cuomo briefed the media on his 2018 budget, which includes a plan for NYRA. The budget briefing says re-privatization would be “a culmination of the Governor’s multi-year effort to ensure horse racing in New York is competently managed, accountable, and transparent.”

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul addressed the issue when speaking to reporters in Glens Falls the next morning.

“So we’re expecting that will be passed, hopefully by the April 1st deadline. And we’re excited about it. There was signoff by all the major parties, particularly up here in Saratoga as well, so we think it’s going to be a good transition,” said Hochul.

Hochul also said she did not expect any changes to the VLT revenue formula for NYRA. 

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