These remain uncertain times for the New York Racing Association, but the winds of change continue to blow through Ozone Park, Elmont and Saratoga and it's a lot easier to be optimistic about the future now than it was even a few months ago.
NYRA is in the hands of what is being called a "Reorganization Board" which has been assigned the task of steadying the ship, fixing whatever might have been wrong and putting New York racing in a position where it can thrive well into the future. The Reorganization Board is the creation of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who swept in and all but took over NYRA after several missteps by the racing organization, including shortchanging bettors after failing to properly adjust some takeout rates. That politics and politicians were to play such a major role in New York racing was unsettling, but it turns out that this new group is committed and prepared to make important and necessary changes.
That was evident with the announcement that NYRA will take a serious look at reducing the number of racing days during the winter season. They will also explore limiting the number of races run on any day. Ten-race cards could be replaced with, say, eight race cards. With the foal crop having declined dramatically and with the racing office scrambling to fill races any way it can, even if that means a surfeit of bad, cheap, brand-damaging events, that's a no-brainer but a no-brainer that has been ignored for far too long.
It hasn't gone unnoticed by the new NYRA Board that more horses break down on the Aqueduct inner track than any other NYRA surface. That is why they are also looking at curtailing racing on the inner track and/or installing a synthetic surface at Aqueduct.
Cuomo and his advisors have been particularly vigilant about safety issues, and good for them. Every conceivable effort must be made to protect the horses from catastrophic injury, which also means safeguarding the brave men and women who ride them. Totally eliminating catastrophic breakdowns is impossible, but more can always be done.
It hasn't gone unnoticed by the new NYRA Board that more horses break down on the Aqueduct inner track than any other NYRA surface. That is why they are also looking at curtailing racing on the inner track and/or installing a synthetic surface at Aqueduct. Those may or may not be good ideas, but it doesn't make any sense to invest any money into Aqueduct until Aqueduct's future has been decided. There's every chance the facility will stop operating as a racetrack at some point and become a casino only.
Nonetheless, that this NYRA Board is exploring these options is a good sign. It understands that the status quo wasn't working and is obviously intent on making meaningful changes to ensure that New York racing is the best it can be. That's how well-run businesses do things, but horse racing has never had a shortage of executives with their heads buried in the sand.
The NYRA Reorganization Board doesn't necessarily get an A-plus. Things are moving too slowly, and that probably has something to do with the fact that Chairman of the Board David Skorton is also the president of Cornell and can devote only a modest amount of time to NYRA. NYRA has been without a CEO since late April and it's taking far too long to fill the void. It also issued an order barring NYRA executives from betting, which was silly and unnecessary. General Motors does not tell its executives they cannot drive cars. Betting is a huge part of the business and racing executives can lose touch with their customers if they don't understand what wagering is all about.
So, let's give the new Board an A minus.
Skorton is an impressive individual and is obviously very capable. Board member Bobby Flay has had the guts to speak openly about NYRA's problems and is obviously not someone who is going to go through the motions. Board member Anthony Bonomo is another who gets high marks. He understands the business and is a problem-solver.
There's not a lightweight among this group.
The NYRA Reorganization Board will meet Jan. 25 in Manhattan and that meeting, now open to the media and public, should shed a lot of light on what's ahead for NYRA. All the issues they have said will be on the table are important ones.
Let's hope they also begin to at least discuss off-track betting. In New York, the largest city in America, there is no off-track wagering because New York City OTB crashed and burned under the heavy burden of its own incompetence. NYRA needs to put the wheels in motion so that it can take over off-track wagering in the city, which, if that happens, could be a huge plus for the organization.
There's still a lot to be done, a lot to be resolved and a lot of uncertainty. But NYRA is back on course.
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.