NYRA Headed Toward Privatization

Apr 13, 2017

After pulling out of a fiscal emergency and a scandal that cost the last CEO his job, the New York Racing Association will return from state control as a private non-profit. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports that’s good news for advocates in Saratoga Springs.

NYRA has been under state control for four years. In that time, led by a reorganization board, the organization that oversees racing at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga has seen its revenues stabilize and made a slew of improvements to the tracks.

Re-privatization deadlines had been pushed back by Governor Andrew Cuomo but the governor included language to relinquish state control in the recently passed state budget.

NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay issued a statement thanking the governor and state lawmakers for the action.

He said, “NYRA is the cornerstone of an industry responsible for more than 17,000 jobs and $2 billion in annual economic impact across our state. As a private entity, we look forward to continue to grow interest in our racing, expand our fan base, and promote New York’s important tourism and agriculture sectors.”

A bill to re-privatize NYRA was passed by both houses of the state legislature but was not signed by the end of last year. Senator Kathy Marchione and Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner led the charge.

Woerner, a Democrat who represents Saratoga Springs, said racing at the Spa is not just important for the region, but the state as a whole. New York racing, she says, is competing with a global market.

“We need this industry to succeed and it’s going to succeed best as a private entity,” said Woerner.

There was also a push by a group called the Concerned Citizens of Saratoga Racing — you may have seen its “Whoa, Cuomo!” billboard along I-87 last year.

Group member Cynthia Hollowood, who also manages the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs, thanked the lawmakers, Governor Cuomo, and the NYRA board for their hard work to turn around the organization.

“As we look forward to what’s coming next, I think there’s a bright future at all three outlets,” said Hollowood.

Hollowood said that privatization will allow for NYRA to make long-term planning and investments. It also adds stability to an industry that’s been growing in the state in recent years.

According to the budget, the new 17-member NYRA board will include a CEO, eight executive committee members, and two members appointed each by the governor, the Senate, and the Assembly.

Stakeholders including breeders and horesmen will also have a pick.

The language also enhances powers of the Franchise Oversight Board, which the governor’s office says will “help safeguard the accomplishments of the transitional board.”

There will also not be any changes to the distribution of VLT revenues.

Concerned Citizens member and President of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce Todd Shimkus believes the new setup is the best possible option.

“There will be local stakeholders, from the racing industry, from Saratoga, hopefully, on the board helping to make whatever future decisions are made around capital improvements, fan experience, making sure the businesses run properly, making sure the backstretch workers are taken care of, and making sure the horses are treated as safely as possible,” said Shimkus.

One member of the current transitional board, Saratoga Springs resident Georgie Nugent, said she “couldn’t be more proud” of the work done by the NYRA board over the last few years.

“It’s been a long four years, I’ve served for the past year-and-a-half, it’s a lot of work and you have to have a love for the sport, which members of our board obviously have that, and you have to give a lot of time to make this a win-win for New York racing,” said Nugent.

The re-privatization is scheduled to take place 90 days after the signing of the budget.