Tuesday, August 28, 2012
New York racing at crossroads
By Paul Moran
Special to ESPN.com
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The air rushes from the Spa's balloon suddenly and this year with the distinct sound of both finality and relief. Even the acquisition of the Travers canoe by Mike Repole, inventor of vitamin enriched water and enthusiastic owner of racehorses, met with resigned disinterest on Sunday when it was removed from the infield pond for transport to a swimming pool on Long Island. Sunday mornings after the Travers Stakes have for more than 50 years dawned on the canoe painted in the winner's colors but, even with the problems posed by a dead heat in the 143rd Travers, tradition is impossible to besmirch when so few traditionalists remain and are so vastly outnumbered by the unaware.
Since there is no chain of authority at the New York Racing Association, a void left by the overthrow of a hapless board of trustees larded with those due political consideration and the announced intent to replace it with a hapless board almost purely composed of those due political consideration, the immediate period, post Saratoga, is critical. It is important that the inevitably inept be able to recognize and hire those who are highly capable, a difficult equation to balance. This will reveal immediately much concerning the intent of Gov. Andrew (Darth Vader) Cuomo regarding the future of racing and breeding in New York.
For starters, NYRA needs a battle-tested chief executive officer with chops and the authority to carry out the remainder of a stem to stern retooling that results in more real production and fewer vice presidents. If a nation can function with one vice president, so can NYRA.
That person will be an executive second in command capable of overseeing the daily operation of the world's largest and most important racing operation -- a general manager type who is savvy in every area from maintenance of the racing surfaces to the importance of emptying trash and cleaning public areas -- the type who can deal with the starting gate crew, the concession manager and racing secretary.
Such people would have never permitted the claiming nonsense that prevailed at Aqueduct last winter when $7,500 claiming races offered $40,000 purses resulting in a rash of breakdowns. Then again, that one would not have gotten past Forest Gump. Such people would have complied with the laws regarding takeout from mutuel pools, the disregard for which resulted in NYRA's currently dire situation.
Such people would not have permitted a Saratoga meeting with as many as 11 races being run on weekdays and 13 on weekends. In terms of racing, this meeting will, when it is over next week, be about 47 days-long and will have featured an inordinate number of races for horses entered to be claimed for $20.000 who compete for $40,000 purses, many at sprint distances on grass.
Such people would have taken note of filthy public seating areas throughout Saratoga and fired the offending individuals. Respect for the customer, or lack thereof, is evident to the most casual observer of squalid incompetence that has prevailed here this summer.
Such people would have restored the Travers and Jim Dandy bars.
Such people would realize that a steady diet of 5 ½-furlong races run on turf is not what every horseplayer dreams about. Such people understand the audience.
Such people would recognize the importance of a public address system and tote display that work.
Such people, of course, would hope that the state's political leaders, who now have NYRA in a double hammerlock, would consider racing to be the foundation of a larger economic force that is not only integral to the well being of New York but a valuable part of its history and culture.
If a nation can function with one vice president, so can NYRA.
It remains the responsibility of the state to make this happen, to assemble the group of people capable of bringing NYRA to its potential. Expecting New York government to act in the best interest of racing and breeding is, however, on a plane with belief in leprechauns and this is tragic.
Racing, after all, was given birth in North America on the Hempstead plain of Long Island shortly after the British took control of New York from the Dutch and cleared the only nearby flatland to build a racecourse called Newmarket. It predates every form of organized sport on the continent, most agricultural enterprise and the Union itself.
At various points of New York history that spans centuries, racetracks flourished in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and even Manhattan. It is part of almost every civilized society on earth. Now, there is concern that racing may not survive the current Democratic administration in Albany.
But the party of Pedro Espada, Charlie Rangel, "Client Number Nine" and others has control of racing in New York and since the video lottery casino opened at Aqueduct late last year has begun to produce large sums of money for all concerned -- more than enough for everyone at the trough -- the temptation to deny the racing industry the just bounty of its labor may be simply too great for the typical Democratic politician to resist and the one currently wielding the most power rules with a rubber stamp.
There will almost certainly be a money grab in the near future that will hit horsemen and breeders hard and may be the death knell for racing in New York. The only thing done more easily than the takeover of NYRA in the age of bully government will be the execution.
An infield pond at Saratoga absent the Travers canoe on Monday, though a subtle specter, may foreshadow summer days in years to come -- and not many -- in upstate New York.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Expecting New York government to act in the best interest of racing and breeding is, however, on a plane with belief in leprechauns and this is tragic.