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Steven Crist: State making NYRA a tough sell

Steven Crist: State making NYRA a tough sell
By Steven Crist


People who work at the New York Racing Association understandably bristle when anyone says that the annual Saratoga meeting is essentially a foolproof operation that runs itself. When I worked there more than 15 years ago, I bristled, too, arguing how hard the employees worked and how much time and effort it took to put on the show.

The truth is that both of these arguments are correct. Everyone at the NYRA does work hard during Saratoga, but its still pretty hard to mess things up. Yes, there's too much racing and particularly too much bad racing, and a host of small annoyances that customers must navigate, but the numbers year in and year out suggest that the whole proposition works pretty well regardless of who is running the place. Over the last three years, Saratoga has posted essentially the same business numbers under three entirely different management scenarios - under an entrenched and experienced management team in 2011, under a leaderless and shorthanded crew in 2012, and under a whole new board and chief executive for this year's 40 days of sport.

The 2013 Saratoga meeting will be best remembered for two things: extremely good racing in its biggest events, as is often the case, and almost freakishly good weather, which is rarely the case. Just as the weather finally returned to its usual poor form on closing weekend, however, the meet also ended on some unsettling notes - not on the racetrack, where stellar performances by rising stars in the juvenile ranks concluded the meet on a hopeful note, but in the boardroom, where the murky intentions of New York state, which took over the NYRA a year ago, became a bit clearer in an Aug. 28 board meeting.

Most of that meeting was devoted to an excessive video tribute to the meeting and replays of the many ceremonies and photo-ops staged by new management, but things suddenly shifted gears toward the end. The state's representatives laid out a specific goal of making NYRA profitable without the Aqueduct racino revenues that have buoyed the game for the last two years, a prelude to a reprivatization plan that is supposed to be formulated by 2015.

Reprivatization is either the light at tunnel's end, or an oncoming train, depending on what you think it means. The best-case scenario is one in which the state realizes it has a good thing going and that the best plan ahead is to keep NYRA a non-profit operation, putting any profits back into the game, preserving a cherished cultural institution, and continuing to support hundreds of thousands of jobs in direct and related industries. The worst involves the delusional notion of some politicians that the enterprise can be repackaged and transformed into something that can be sold to private operators.

It seems to me that we already wasted more than a decade on the latter notion, when the state did everything it could to discredit NYRA and put the franchise out to bid. For those who have already forgotten, here's what happened: Nobody was interested in bidding unless they could operate casinos at the tracks and keep most of the profits. Those bidders professed some phony affection for the game that most people saw through from the start, and when it became obvious that there was no profitable racing enterprise to be sold, every interested bidder dropped out except one - the NYRA, which actually wanted to continue putting on the best racing and use casino profits only to improve the sport and the facilities.

Nothing has changed to make some sort of "sale" of New York racing any more viable in 2015 than it was in 2005 or 1995. The land and the possibility of doing something different with it are always going to be more valuable than anything the racing can generate. Any plan to sell New York racing is merely a long-term plan to replace it with something else.

Even if it were an attractive business proposition, which it never will be, you would be buying a phantom - something that can be transformed overnight by legislators from marginally profitable to virtually worthless. State government has repeatedly proven that even written contracts guaranteeing racing days or casino revenues can and will be changed at the whim of any incoming administration.

Still, here we go again. NYRA's primary mission apparently is going to be cutting costs, despite finally having the revenue to make critically needed improvements, so that the state can claim it has worked its political magic and created something of value to sell. It feels like the beginning of a long and doomed charade.

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