A critical time for New York racing

The governor of New York has been busy with other things, most notably the aftermath of the storm that devastated much of New York City and Long Island last month, leaving thousands homeless, broke and facing the approach of winter. Much has been left unattended in the weeks subsequent to Hurricane Sandy, some of which is of great importance to the business of horse racing in New York, where what has become known as the Andrew Cuomo Racing Association remains without the essential rudder of competent executives in leadership positions and the future off-track betting in the city's five boroughs could be determined by a misplaced signature on the misguided bill that has been approved by what passes for a legislature in the Empire State.

Every horseplayer with an opinion and a bankroll will find a betting platform and, post-OTB, lost betting revenue has been redirected, mostly to on-line sites including the one operated by the New York Racing Association.

It is not quite clear which is more important: hiring a team of executives to lead the New York Racing Association many months after a state takeover mandated by the governor last spring or clearing the muddle that lingers in the wake of New York City OTB's bankruptcy and subsequent dissolution.

A bill passed by both houses of the state legislature in June awaits either Cuomo's signature or a veto. It would give the generally rural Catskill OTB corporation, the state's smallest pari-mutuel betting enterprise, the right to open betting parlors in New York City, the nation's largest city. This is much like promoting a country librarian to fill Mayor Michael Bloomberg's job.

If the governor is paying attention, he will take notice of the fact that life without off-track wagering in the city goes on without sacrifice. Every horseplayer with an opinion and a bankroll will find a betting platform and, post-OTB, lost betting revenue has been redirected, mostly to on-line sites including the one operated by the New York Racing Association. There appears to be no real consumer demand for a latter-day replacement of what was a profoundly unsuccessful operation that was little more than a jobs program, which failed first under city, then state ownership.

It may also matter that Catskill OTB is unfit to carry out the task for which it had volunteered. It is not forgotten that the group of former Drexel University fraternity brothers who almost succeeded in hijacking the Breeders' Cup pick-six in 2002 easily compromised the computer network at Catskill OTB and were detected not by anyone in the organization but a former NYRA executive. Its president, Don Groth, defended the unidentified winner as no more than a lucky bettor until evidence of attempted larceny became undeniable. The operation has become no more efficient in subsequent years. A recent audit by the state comptroller concluded that the organization, under the leadership of the blithely incompetent Groth, will realize a net loss at year-end. Handing over the rights to open OTB parlors in the city to Catskill would be ludicrous and, in fact, irresponsible. Privatization of the franchise would be the better choice if indeed a choice must be made.

A new "reorganization" board of trustees is in place in New York and in a refreshing move toward transparency its meetings are open to the public and the media. Its first order of business is formation of a team of executives that will lead the organization into what is now a year-old era of prosperity.

It is inevitable that Ellen McClain, who has headed the organization as interim CEO, will be replaced. Her background is in finance, not racing, and NYRA is in desperate need of a leader well versed in every aspect of racetrack operation after a year of executive gridlock, deferred decisions and a general sense of organizational frustration.

Several names have been spun through the rumor mill but it is unclear that the state is prepared to approve a salary appropriate to the chief executive of the nation's largest and most important racing operation.

At the moment, proceeds produced by the nation's most lucrative racino, at Aqueduct, have had the intended result, a level of purses that have, in turn, produced marked increases in wagering. The racing is competitive. Fields are generally larger than in the pre-casino years. Nevertheless, many horsemen have been less than content with a racing office that is generally seen as committed to the path of least resistance, appears to operate by a formula that limits opportunity for some allowance-level horses and is, in three of four seasons, too dependent upon turf sprints in a trade that favors quantity over quality. Other departments have been held in a sort of suspended animation awaiting decisions on day-to-day issues that are held in abeyance at every level. The result: Nothing gets done.

A new CEO, with a free hand to hire the people he needs in critical positions, has the potential to change the face of NYRA.

There is no reason to reanimate the corpse of OTB in the city.

Decisions on these fronts -- New York City OTB and the repopulation of the executive suite at NYRA -- are critical. Prudence will be repaid tenfold -- or more. The wrong choices will set the game back to a place from which it may never recover.

There is no reason to reanimate the corpse of OTB in the city.

Whatever it costs to hire the best available person to lead NYRA is money well spent.

No brainer?

Not in New York.

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.