With the Saratoga meet about to end, Andrew Cuomo's coup is likely right around the corner, and the New York Racing Association will never again be the same. In NYRA's failure to properly adjust a takeout rate that shortchanged bettors, Cuomo found a convenient excuse to take over the New York racetracks and will now handpick the top-level executives and the majority of the Board of Directors. All this should happen soon.
When it comes to racing and wagering, New York's politicians have managed to make a mess of everything they have ever touched, particularly the state's off-track betting system. Combine that with suspicions that Cuomo's blitzkrieg is the result of ulterior motives and the consensus within New York racing circles is that the governor's impending actions will destroy the sport.
It very well could. The governor appears to be laying the groundwork for slashing or doing away altogether with the slots contributions that have made New York racing's purses the best in the world. He may also be plotting to stack the NYRA Board and executive offices with the type of politically connected incompetents that made OTB a laughingstock and dismal failure. We just don't know.
The new Board of Directors, and particularly the chairman's position, needs to be made up of people who will realize that their role is to be stewards of a proud and historic racing franchise.
If he does anything of the kind it would only prove that the governor never had the best interests of New York racing or his state as a whole in mind when he came up with such a drastic response to problems that merited more reasonable solutions. He's a politician and from politicians we have rightly come to expect the worst.
These likely scenarios make for a depressing outlook when it comes to the future of New York racing, but maybe, and hopefully, Governor Cuomo will instead surprise us. If he is indeed the rare politician who wants, first and foremost, what's best for the people of his state and is concerned about the viability of an important industry in horse racing then he will make intelligent decisions that won't bring about the predicted problems.
It will start with his personnel decisions. There are a handful of terrific racing executives out there who would likely accept the job, even though the head positions at NYRA have always paid way less than they should. He could hire someone like Lou Raffetto, Bill Nader or Nick Nicholson and the future of New York racing would be in the type of good hands that would immediately ease the worries so many have for the sport.
The new Board of Directors, and particularly the chairman's position, needs to be made up of people who will realize that their role is to be stewards of a proud and historic racing franchise. Their every decision needs to be made based on what's best for New York racing and not what's best for Andrew Cuomo or his surrogates or financial supporters.
Then there's Ellen McClain, who took over as NYRA's top executive after Charlie Hayward was fired over the takeout scandal. A report that appeared in the New York Post before the Saratoga meet started said that McClain's firing was imminent, and a reporter known to have impeccable sources wrote it. I don't know McClain, but people who do all say that she is very good at what she does and an asset that should be kept. Firing her would be petty.
NYRA has not been perfect and the takeout foul-up should not have happened. But the perception, fueled by Cuomo and others, that it has been incompetent if not corrupt, is far from the truth. The current Saratoga meet, which has been an artistic and financial success, is proof of just that.
Cuomo should not have done what he did, but there's no going back now. While nearly everyone is predicting a doomsday scenario because of the governor's actions, no damage has been done yet. And there's no reason that has to change. Governor Cuomo needs to bring in capable people to run the show, leave most everything else unchanged and then quickly get out of the way and move on to more important problems. Will he? The future of New York racing may just depend on it.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.