SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — This is the Saratoga season that should have elated everyone in the racing industry.
The track looks as grand as ever; the crowds are large and enthusiastic; the quality of the stakes competition is unmatched in the United States. And now, after a decade of hopes and delays, revenue from slot machines downstate at Aqueduct is infusing the sport, pushing prize money to unprecedented levels. Maidens at Saratoga are competing for purses as high as $85,000. The changed economics could revitalize the sport by encouraging more owners to buy and breed thoroughbreds.
Yet at Saratoga this summer you will hear little optimistic talk about the future — not when the equivalent of a nuclear bomb is about to drop. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is set to take control of the New York Racing Association by reconstituting its board of directors and packing it with political appointees. The New York Post’s statehouse correspondent Fredric Dicker — whose sources are considered authoritative — wrote that Cuomo would fire NYRA’s CEO Ellen McClain “as soon as the meet ends on Sept. 3.” Almost everyone expects that Cuomo will take for the state some or all of the slot-machine revenue that has been earmarked for horse racing.
People who don’t follow racing closely, and know about NYRA what they read in the New York newspapers, might think that any change would be an improvement. For years, NYRA has been a whipping boy for politicians and the press, portrayed as incompetent and corrupt. But the supposed misdeeds of the organization were regularly overblown, and much of the hostility toward NYRA was driven by factors other than its record. Plenty of people in New York disliked the fact that the upper crust of the horsey set, the wealthy dynasties like the Phippses and the Vanderbilts, dominated NYRA and exerted so much control over New York racing. Former governor Mario Cuomo, father of Andrew, had a visceral dislike of the bluebloods.
The criticism about the rule of the bluebloods had some foundation. I stopped going to Saratoga in the late 1990s because the track had become customer-unfriendly and the people running it appeared not to notice or care. The sport appeared to be exist mostly for the benefit of wealthy owners. But after Charlie Hayward was named president and CEO in 2004, NYRA conducted its operations much more skillfully than the nation’s other major owners of racetracks, Frank Stronach and Churchill Downs, Inc.
NYRA operates the most successful race meeting in America, though its critics will rarely give it credit for that achievement. At Saratoga it has managed to accommodate big crowds while retaining the charm that makes the Spa a must-see destination for racing fans throughout the country.
NYRA did things that the politicians would never notice but that core fans recognized and appreciated: Its in-house television presentation is the most informative in the industry. Its Web site is packed with useful information. It changed the rules governing the Pick Six and Pick Four to protect bettors when races were shifted from turf to dirt.