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Monday, January 30, 2012
When things get out of comptroll

By Bob Ehalt

It was as inevitable as eventually finding snow on the ground in the winter.

At a time when the New York Racing Association is finally enjoying a great wave of success along comes a politician to supposedly set the record straight and let us know that all is not well.

In this case, it’s New York Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli who recently decided to generate a few headlines for himself by alluding to the new-found revenue NYRA is now getting from the Aqueduct casino and saying the group "stands to squander significant revenue."

DiNapoli’s desire for attention is, of course, understandable. DiNapoli needs votes to get elected, and comptroller is about as obscure a position as you’ll find -- except when they’re getting arrested, like DiNapoli’s predecessor, Alan Hevesi, did.

I’m just guessing, but it seems safe to say that if you start walking up down the Manhattan theater district at 4 p.m. asking people to name the comptroller of New York State you’ll probably miss your play before someone says “Thomas P. DiNapoli.” The next day’s matinee might be in jeopardy, too.

So, to prove they exist, a comptroller generally makes a blanket comment about a state budget being out of whack (thanks for the scoop!) or starts slamming on an old, reliable piņata to show how valuable they are when it comes to protecting the public’s interest.

For years NYRA has been one of those inviting targets for political pot-shots, and, quite frankly, it’s getting old and tired.

No one can say NYRA is perfect, its recently revealed error in charging a higher takeout on exotic wagers seals that deal. And some of what DiNapoli says is valid. But, in general, the points raised by DiNapoli are laughable. DiNapoli wants to treat NYRA like a government agency, and it’s anything but.

In reality, the last thing any NYRA fan or horseman should want is a politician dictating how NYRA treats them. They want to be treated like a customer and be rewarded for their business. They’re not taxpayers, forced to fork over their cash without argument. They can spend their money or bring their business elsewhere in a free country.

Being a business, which has wide-spread competition for gaming and entertainment dollars, NYRA needs freedom to operate in a customer-friendly -- not politician-friendly -- manner that will allow it to grow its customer base, even if some losses must be absorbed for a while.

Some politicians, of course, do not understand or care about this. They just want the money racing brings and figure if this or that gets cut there will be more for them to take out of the pot.

Given the government’s “expertise” in running its own agencies, like the now defunct New York City Off-Track Betting, it would seem logical to give some latitude to NYRA and allow it a reasonable amount time to right its ship with the casino revenue.

Instead, DiNapoli has sprung into action about a month into the new era, saying he’s fearful that NYRA will waste its share of the casino’s dollars, even though the money had already been designated for purses and capital improvements, not junkets to the Caribbean.

He also once again raised the possibility of charging horsemen for transporting horses between Belmont Park and Aqueduct, which is outrageous. Thanks to the inflated purses, long-suffering horsemen are finally getting a chance to make financial ends meet. And now, DiNapoli wants to pass along a new fee to them. Incredible.

Perhaps DiNapoli believes every horse is owned by a billionaire who can write off the shipping bills as chump change. But the truth is that stables, both large and small, will feel the pinch of that fee, and it could deter new owners from getting involved in the game.

Nor does it make sense to pass a charge along to horsemen when shipping is necessitated because NYRA does not have enough stall spaces to house every horse at the track that’s open for racing.

DiNapoli also brought up staff reductions, which in some ways is the last thing NYRA should ponder. The new casino is bringing more people than ever to Aqueduct, and, rather than trim staff, NYRA should look into employee raises to improve morale and adding people and equipment to make a trip to the Big A more enjoyable and comfortable for customers.

Remember, we’re talking about a business, not the Department of Motor Vehicles. When a restaurant experiences a surge in business, it adds wait staff and chefs. It doesn’t let people go – unless it wants to upset people and revert to the old days when customers dressed up like empty chairs.

A comptroller doesn’t get that. He doesn’t look at the big picture, and in the process he only makes the experience worse for the fans, who will eventually spend their time elsewhere.

Mr. DiNapoli, thanks for your concern about NYRA, but can you find a new piņata? Perhaps you can serve a more useful purpose in finding out why you’re called a comptroller. What do you really comptroll?

Racing fans can only hope it’s not NYRA.