The burning question

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The question is not which 3-year-old will win the Travers. What remains of the division is several cuts below inspiring; falls short of interesting. Beyond Alpha, winner of the Jim Dandy Stakes over the weekend, it's not clear who will run in the Travers.

Can the New York Racing Association and racing as an industry survive Gov. Andrew Cuomo?

The question isn't who will win the Whitney or the Woodward. That division too is wanting for star power and there is no Rachel Alexandra or Havre de Grace in the picture this summer.

The conversation isn't about the length of the stand at Saratoga or the rigors of the six-day racing week.

The questions being asked here have nothing to do with horses and yet everything to do with horses not yet born, racing's future, breeding, the tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of ancillary business supported by thoroughbreds running counterclockwise in the Empire State.

The question that dominates the summer's conversation at the Spa: Can the New York Racing Association and racing as an industry and beneficial contributor to the economy in this state survive Gov. Andrew Cuomo?

Though few have taken notice, the state government is in control of NYRA, which is now no less a state agency than the Department of Motor Vehicles. Nobody really believes the reins will be returned in three years as recently passed legislation suggests. That would require taking politicians at their word, which is widely known to be foolish. The next time a cash-generating enterprise is passed from government to the private sector will be the first.

Cuomo, who has yet to be seen at a racetrack and is unlikely to show up for the Travers after establishing a precedent of contempt by ignoring the Belmont Stakes, will appoint a new chairman of the NYRA board sometime after this meeting is over. His minions in Albany will appoint the majority of board members, though it is difficult to envision any political animal being anxious to take a job for which there is no remuneration and little opportunity for larceny. This was originally an organization by and for owners and breeders of racehorses and service on the board of trustees was a labor of love, something generally absent in the halls of government.

The product of this process will be a board composed of people who know everything about patronage and nothing about racing or the operation of racetracks. They will be led by one of their own and all unpaid. This is something other than a formula for success.

Meanwhile, the government is said to be conducting "a nationwide search" for people with the expertise required to run a racing enterprise of this magnitude. It needs a CEO and a general manager as well as a new head legal counsel. The state headhunters will find that the talent pool is shallow and highly paid. Anyone qualified will demand a salary significantly greater than Cuomo's. Expect a bad decision.

At the moment, while Cuomo is occupied with expanding the breadth and scope of gambling in a state already crowded with casinos and racinos that boast the nation's highest tax rate, NYRA is running on fumes. A few department heads with specific expertise and long experience are keeping things together, but no one is in charge and swarms of devils emerge almost daily from the details. Clueless interim leadership of the year's most important race meeting is not a good idea.

Alternative wagering has put racing on firm financial footing some would even call prosperity.

This is in the main NYRA's fault. Permitting the shortchanging of bettors to the tune of some $8.5 million is, in effect, grand larceny for which no one has been held accountable. The firing of former president Charles Hayward and chief legal counsel Patrick Keogh fall short of holding them accountable. That, though the oddity is that this was grand larceny without personal benefit, would take the form of indictment. All this took place with a board in place that included several political appointees, none of which appears to have been paying attention to their unpaid jobs, and an oversight board -- all political appointees -- charged with nothing except overseeing NYRA. Clearly, an incompetent State Racing and Wagering Board was asleep at the switch. The state was clearly as much at fault as NYRA, but no one has been held responsible. The aftermath involved only negotiations that led to legislation -- legislative mugging, actually -- that results in the state seizing control of NYRA for a period of three years, or its demise-- whichever comes first.

This should be a time of boundless promise in New York. Alternative wagering has put racing on firm financial footing some would even call prosperity. If anything has exceeded expectations at Saratoga, it is the racing resulting from casino-fueled purses. Fields have been large and competitive. But there is the lingering sense of dread in the racing community -- a not far-fetched concern that Cuomo will soon reach into the pockets of horsemen and breeders, that this long-awaited prosperity will be temporary.

Already, it has been noted, there is a growing bureaucracy in place to govern the sport. Nothing good comes from regulation by bureaucracy and there is no shining example of exception.

The fear is that if Cuomo wants the state to have the money that now goes to racing while keeping the casino gambling interests that have so generously seeded his next campaign fund happy by expanding options and locations, he will find a way. If racing in New York is the casualty of his political ambition, there will be neither pang of conscience nor loss of slumber.

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 pmoran1686@aol.com.