Sunday, October 09, 2005

New York Horse Racing

No, not this kind. As I mentioned a few days ago, I come from Saratoga Springs, New York, and while Saratoga has a thriving private sector, we get a huge influx of business every summer because we have one of the greatest tourist draws in the state: the Saratoga Race Track.

There are three big race tracks in New York (Belmont and Aqueduct are the other two), all run by a company that is granted a monopoly by the state, currently the New York Racing Association. Apparently, they have to renew this monopoly in the legislature once in a while, but NYRA's been running the show since I can remember - and I've been going to the track since before I was tall enough to place a bet.

Now, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Brunswick) wants to revoke NYRA's monopoly and give it to someone else. NYRA's been embroiled in scandal for years (some of the best investigative work was unveiled earlier this year by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi), and they lose money ($16 million in 2004, about the same in 2005), and they claim they're going to go broke in months. (To avoid that fate, they're selling off land that they may or may not own - land that may or may not be owned by the state, which the governor claims it is.) Just a few weeks ago, federal prosecutors announced that a criminal case against NYRA (for a "two-decade tax fraud scheme") would not be pursued, under a "deferred prosecution agreement" in which NYRA allegedly cleaned house.

So Senator Bruno thinks a new and better public-private scheme put in its place: he wants to award a new monopoly for the three tracks to a new company.

Earlier this summer, Albany's signature newspaper, the Albany Times Union, was on Bruno's case about a deal that was maybe questionable and maybe not that bad: his son Ken took out a $50,000 loan, cosigned by his father, and he turned around and gave the money right back to Senator Bruno. They both say it was for cost overruns on Ken's house that occurred while he was in the middle of a divorce a couple of years ago. As it happens, Ken Bruno also happens to be a lobbyist, which is why this was a controversy. I stood up for the Senator in a (tangentially related) letter to the Times Union that they published (August 24) and which concluded thus:
Your newspaper and editorial staff are far from "courageous," as they were described earlier this year by readers when Editor Rex Smith was pounding his chest for "discovering" and "exposing" that Joe Bruno helped his son Ken by loaning him money to cover cost overruns on his house. "Partisan," "biased," and "agenda-driven" are much more apt descriptions of the day-to-day antics of your boardroom.
So back to horse racing: guess whose brand new lobbying firm, Albany Strategies, is hauling in $15,000 a month to represent Magna Entertainment, a contender in the battle to take over NYRA's publicly endorsed monopoly. If you guessed that it's Ken Bruno's new lobbying firm, you're exactly right. (The same Ken Bruno that represented Madison Square Garden and Cablevision in their battle royale with the New York Jets over the West Side Stadium - hmm. See here, June 8. Caveat: I'm still glad the Senator stopped the WSS, but I'm referring to the means, not the ends here.)

Which brings me to my final point: why does the NYS Legislature get to pick who provides us our horse racing and horse gambling services (and food and drink services at those tracks - another huge part of the industry)? If horse racing is "vital" to New York State, how come we lose money on it every stinking year under these stupid government-run schemes that somehow "protect" the public? In Saratoga, a lot of us love our horse racing - love it to death. Surely Saratoga won't disappear if the State sells off the track to the highest bidder. There are plenty of strong businessmen and women who absolutely love racing, love the track, and would be fine custodians of it. If Belmont and Acqueduct are failing miserably, fine: they can go out of business. Just get the damned government out of it - why are they spending our tax dollars to keep failing businesses afloat, and to deny the right to compete on fair turf to anyone who might challenge NYRA or Magna Entertainment? It's a crock, and I'm pissed - especially after taking the time to defend the Senator and his son in the paper. Crooks and liars, every last damned politician in this state.

Update: In my Sunday morning reading after posting this, I came across Saratoga (and elsewhere) racing writer Michael Veitch's column, which is chock full o' context, including specifics about how the system operates and semi-recent history:
So with three of the nine seats empty [on the panel that decides who gets the monopoly], Sen. Bruno wants to move forward.

Do you suppose he is worried about possible gains by Democrats in the 2006 elections, and wants the franchise issue resolved before those gains? Only he can answer that, but it is the same Sen. Bruno who signed on to a NYRA franchise extension in 1997 for 10 years through 2007.

He did that just days before New York was supposed to begin a bidding process on Sept. 1, 1997 for a review of the franchise and other potential bidders to operate Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga.

He was joined by Governor Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in that cute little move, which ignored the legislative intent of the franchise agreement governing racing at that time.
Veitch concludes:
There are decades of ancient laws and regulations governed by layers of state bureaucracies that are outdated.

This cannot be changed in six months, yet that is what Sen. Bruno is proclaiming.
It can be fixed in six months: the State can withdraw from its role in racing. If NYRA owns the tracks, NYRA can keep the tracks. If the state owns the track, the State should sell the tracks to the highest bidder. Saratoga will be racing til the day I die, and it will race after that. Contrary what Joe Bruno's inflated self-image might lead him to believe, he is not the one keeping us racing. He's a looter and a parasite, and he needs to be put out to pasture.


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