"It would be senseless to make such an investment in an industry that is hampered with destructive competition between its on-and-off-track elements." -- Mario Cuomo, June, 1993
Then Governor Mario Cuomo got it. When he set out to right the many wrongs that plagued the New York racing industry in the nineties he accurately concluded that the dysfunctional relationship between the New York Racing Association and New York City OTB had to end.
Cuomo never succeeded in his attempt to pull the plug on OTB and turn over the off-track business to NYRA. With so many politically connected highly paid executives on its payroll, OTB proved to be even more powerful than the governor. But the world's only losing bookmaker eventfully self-destructed and closed down in late 2010.
It seems the many politicians who voted for the bill either didn't know or didn't care that Catskill OTB was at the center of one of the biggest scandals in racing history when fraternity brothers from Drexel University fixed the Breeders' Cup Pick Six in 2002.
It's been two years since the last bet was made through New York City OTB but now a group is ready to step in and bring OTB back. Only it's not NYRA but another OTB outfit.
A bill has passed both branches of the state legislature that would allow Catskill OTB to extend its region into New York's five boroughs and essentially re-open what was shut down when New York City OTB went bankrupt. All that stands between a Catskill takeover of New York is the signature of current governor Andrew Cuomo, Mario' son.
That Catskill has come this close to taking over is troubling. It seems the many politicians who voted for the bill either didn't know or didn't care that Catskill OTB was at the center of one of the biggest scandals in racing history when fraternity brothers from Drexel University fixed the Breeders' Cup Pick Six in 2002. They said they made their bets through Catskill because they knew how lax security was there. But even if Catskill's record were squeaky clean a return to a government run off-track betting in New York City would mean going back to a system that every sensible, informed person in the sport realized was a terrible idea.
New York City OTB was allowed to take bets in the biggest city in America without having to put on a horse racing meet, which should have been a license to print money. It failed because it was horribly managed and it was horribly managed because the people hired to run the place were overpaid politically connected hacks who didn't know what they were doing and/or didn't care. Government run OTB will always be what it's always been: a political patronage dumping ground that does nothing to serve the horse racing industry.
A bill that would do nothing but harm the horse racing industry in New York now sits on the desk of the current Governor Cuomo, the same governor who has vowed to straighten out a business that he believes has gone off the rails. Unless he has been completely disingenuous about his desires to fix horse racing in his state, he will not sign this bill.
Surely Cuomo knows that returning to the same broken model that his father tried to blow up would be a serious step in the wrong direction. The future of off-track betting in New York has to be in the hands of the New York Racing Association. To have NYRA produce the product and then compete, often bitterly, with another company when it comes to selling the product just doesn't work and it weakens racing in the state. Nor does it make any sense to return to the model where OTB's business largely revolved around seedy storefront operations. With so many bettors now preferring to wager over the Internet, all you really need for the bricks-and-mortar side of the business is a handful of state-of-the-art teletheaters sprinkled around the city.
It seems odd that NYRA hasn't pushed harder for an OTB takeover, but its inactivity certainly has something to do with its own problems. With Andrew Cuomo having come in and essentially taken over by restructuring the NYRA board and handpicking its chairman, the organization is still in the process of being redefined, a process taking place at a tortoise-like pace. For the most part, at NYRA, no one is in charge right now.
Perhaps this Governor Cuomo just doesn't understand the many reasons why he shouldn't bring Catskill OTB in to run New York City OTB. Maybe he should call his father. I expect he'd give him an ear full.
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.