The Belmont Stakes is fast approaching and 100,000-plus will trek to Long Island to witness I'll Have Another's attempt at racing immortality. With money pouring in from the slots at Aqueduct, purses at the New York tracks are extraordinary. Saratoga is right around the corner.
These should be the best of times for the New York Racing Association, but they are anything but. A recent scandal over overcharging bettors cost two top NYRA executives their jobs and led New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to wage a bloodless coup. Sometime after the Belmont, a new NYRA will begin to take shape, one that will take its orders from a CEO/President and a Board of Directors largely handpicked by Cuomo himself.
That a government, any government, is going to have such a huge say in the future of New York racing has a lot of people nervous, and it should.
That a government, any government, is going to have such a huge say in the future of New York racing has a lot of people nervous, and it should. This is, after all, the state that was home to the biggest debacle in horse racing history: the government run New York City OTB Corporation.
The sole reason OTB was such a colossal failure was because of the people who were chosen to run it. Its executives were not picked for their business acumen, their knowledge of racing or because of past success in some other endeavor. They were picked because of whom they knew.
That they may have been incompetent did not disqualify them from the job. OTB existed not to make profits but because it was a convenient dumping ground for the politically connected who had no particular skills of any kind.
Cuomo wasn't governor when New York City OTB closed its doors, but he certainly knows all about its history. If not, he can ask his father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. In 1993, the elder Cuomo made an attempt to reel OTB in and have it privatized, but even he couldn't untangle the mess.
Hopefully, Andrew Cuomo understands that New York racing is too important to the state to be treated like another OTB or the Department of Motor Vehicles. He can find some political hacks to run the place, and they will surely run it into the ground.
Or he can find the type of driven, bright people needed to lead NYRA into the future. He can start by seeing to it that as the Board of Trustees includes many racing insiders. It has to have people who are knowledgeable about the sport and have racing's best interests in mind.
In a CEO he needs to find a dynamic leader, hopefully one with some sort of horse racing background, and pay him or her handsomely. You are not going to get the right person on the cheap, and maybe not even for the $475,000 former NYRA President and CEO Charlie Hayward was paid. For a CEO of a large company, which is what NYRA is, $475,000 is not serious money.
New York racing finds itself at a crossroads, a place where it constantly seems to be. It's time to bring some stability back to the situation, to start worrying about racing and stop worrying about politics and scandal. It's time for Governor Cuomo to do the right thing. He needs to get this right.
Food Truck Mania
Sunday was a remarkable day at Monmouth Park, where 23,020 people turned out for the live card. They weren't there to see the Little Silver Stakes. The attraction was "Food Truck Wars" The backyard area of the track was taken up by a dozen or so Food Trucks and patrons could munch on their goodies and then vote for their favorites.
The good news is that it was a terrific promotion that helped attract the kind of crowd that usually turns out at a racetrack these days only for major events, like the Haskell.
The bad news is that the Food Truck fans apparently don't bet much. The on-track handle was $869,594, which comes out to a per capita of $37.77 per customer.
Getting people into the track is only part of the battle. Racetracks have yet to figure out how to get curiosity seekers to bet. A place to start would be to give out free programs and figure out a way to give them $2 vouchers without it costing the track. (How about bumping up admission on days like these and using the voucher as a rebate?). If they come to experience the falafel and not the exacta we haven't accomplished enough.
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.