Down to the wire for Saratoga

How did it come to this?  Regular readers know I'm not a big fan of gambling.  The state becomes dependent on gambling as a revenue source, and a source of patronage and perks.  The result is regulation that ignores the needs of the citizenry (think about what the constant barrage of lottery ads does for the compulsive gamblers among us), and gambling operations that aren't very well run.

The New York Racing Association (NYRA) is a case in point.  A non-governmental, not-for-profit, NYRA runs Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga race tracks and maintains a cozy relationship with the state's politicians in Albany.  To get a feel for how gambling and New York politics mix, you need know only one fact – just a few years ago NYRA – a large and powerful not for profit that could, in theory, be a paragon of efficiency- had it's hands full defending racketeering charges, including money laundering.

Despite the aura of cheap sleaze that often surrounds gambling, NYRA is entrusted with two gems: Belmont, which plays host to the triple crown finale on its spacious landscaped grounds; and, Saratoga, the nations oldest track, which is pictured in the dictionary under “park like setting.”  Both are places where you can actually take a family with children for a picnic, have fun with some two dollar bets and  go home a winner every time.

Saratoga Race Track is also an economic engine for Saratoga Springs.  In addition to its famed mineral waters, the town has myriad, year round cultural, culinary  and athletic attractions, but Saratoga Springs is scaled to handle the big crowds from the track and would decline sharply without them.

This year NYRA reached the edge of insolvency, threatening cancellation of the Saratoga racing season.  The immediate problem was twofold: NYC OTB defaulted on a $19 million debt to NYRA and NYRA had counted on revenue from video slot machines at Aqueduct, which weren't installed because the winning bidder was disqualified for – you guessed it- organized crime ties.  In fact if you look in the dictionary under cheap sleaze you will see two pictures – a NYC OTB parlor filled with thousand mile stare patrons and a half finished slots parlor at the Big A.  The legislature somehow emerged from its stalemate for a minute, just in time to authorize an emergency loan, but, once again, how did it come to this?

 Last year, in a deep recession with a rainy Travers Stakes, Saratoga had attendance of 854,400, a track handle (total bet at Saratoga) of $112 Million and a total handle (total legally bet on Saratoga races, including OTB parlors) of $513 Million.  When you throw in concessions and licensing revenues, there is enough revenue in this package to run a nice track.  Why tie Saratoga, or Belmont, to NYRA and its history of problems.  Emergency loans may be a short term solution, but when you have a gambling operation that isn't sleazy, keep it privately, locally owned and as far away from Albany patronage as possible.  How can NYRA go broke when it has a license to print money?  Everybody's nephew is on the payroll.   Let government regulate to ensure fairness, not to make a buck and get  front row boxes for the pols and their friends.  Get the good tracks out of NYRA before it's too late. 

Photo Credit: Samantha Decker