Throughout Saratoga opening weekend there were signs posted in front yards and on a billboard on 87N near the exit for the racetrack. These signs all said Whoa Cuomo. They line Union Avenue. They are on store windows on Broadway. The question is what is why Cuomo and why is Saratoga, a summertime resort, focused on criticizing the Governor of New York.
The Whoa Cuomo movement is a grassroots movement started by Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing. This group is chaired by Saratoga resident Maureen Lewi. Its mission is to ensure that thoroughbred racing is maintained in Saratoga and thereby preserving it in the State of New York.
Presently the group believes that Governor Cuomo is reneging on a pledge dating back to 2012. The New York Racing Association in 2012 agreed to a plan whereby NYRA would be placed under government control for three years subject to certain conditions. As reported by the New York Times in 2012, these conditions include allowing control of the NYRA board and it’s governance to be placed in the hands of the Governor. In addition to the reorganization of the board, certain monies were loaned to NYRA from the anticipated Video lottery terminal (VLT) revenue from the slot parlor in Aqueduct. Even as this deal was being made, there was concern about what may come from New York taking control of NYRA This was laid out by the Washington Post’s Andy Beyer.
NYRA paid back the note that was due over three years in two. NYRA found a CEO who has stabilized the finances at NYRA. The attendance figures increased. The handle became stronger. The tv contracts became better even resulting in a new 2 hour show carried on MSG+ and other stations throughout the country. While on track issues may remain, it is clear NYRA is headed in the right direction, even under governmental watch.
Remember the 2012 takeover. Governor Cuomo stated during that press conference that government should not be in the permanent business of thoroughbred racing. It seemed that taken at face value, if NYRA did what it was supposed to do, government would not be in the permanent business of racing. NYRA had one last responsibility; to submit their version of a reprivatization plan. While NYRA was permitted to do this in 2015; for business reasons it asked for a one year extension which was granted.
Fast forward to April 2016, NYRA filed its reorganization plan. By statute it had to provide options for the state to choose from. The first option was to allow for total board control of 15 members, all from the private sector. The second option is one for 15 board members, 4 appointed by legislators. The third option would delay any privatization by a year and continue things as they are. The NYRA board chose to recommend one of the first two options according to WAMU.
The Governor rejected NYRA’s plan. The Cuomo plan changes the requirement that the Senate pick two members of the board and the Assembly pick two members with the Governor having one pick for the Board with the plan that has Cuomo picking all 5 members of the board. Furthermore, Cuomo’s plan diverts VLT revenue from NYRA into governmental operations.
The diversion of the revenue created a significant concern for those interested in racing. Should Cuomo’s plan occur not only will racing suffer but the ramifications will be felt industry wide. Whether it is the revenue on track, the breeder who gets money from the VLT, the hay guy it will impact the communities where the race tracks are.
People who were supportive of Cuomo in the past feel betrayed. Two people, Charles Wait and John Hendrickson, with deep ties to both Saratoga and the NYRA board are frustrated by Cuomo’s plan to take money promised for NYRA. There is a belief that Cuomo got the benefit of a $1Billion dollar land deal for the land where the tracks are without the compensation committed in 2012.
As a result of what is perceived as actions against the interests of racing and specifically Saratoga, Waite and Hendrickson and the Concerned Citizens bought a billboard and put of signs saying Whoa Cuomo. They are asking an industry to come together and stand up to the perceived bullying and money grab by Cuomo.
So, in racing as in life we follow the money. The money trail leads away from NYRA to Cuomo. It is telling that those who have worked with Cuomo in racing leadership have walked away. It is that trail that has made a community say Whoa Cuomo.