Jun 27, 2016
Tom Precious, Blood-Horse

The administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo is hitting back at criticism from the Saratoga Springs community over the recent controversy involving the now-scuttled plan to end a four-year period of state government control of the New York Racing Association.

“It is a great plan for racing fans, for the track itself, and for the regional economy of Saratoga Springs. I’m disappointed that your readers were led to believe otherwise,” Robert Mujica, who is Cuomo’s budget director, wrote in a June 26 letter in the Saratogian newspaper.

In recent weeks the Cuomo administration offered relatively restrained reaction to sharp criticism from members of the state’s Thoroughbred industry over the governor’s proposal for NYRA’s governance. Cuomo proposed a plan to end the state’s four-year control period that still gave the governor strong influence over the NYRA board, took back at least $14 million a year in purse payments, and expanded the powers of a state panel that oversees NYRA’s finances.

The legislature, which offered a plan to return NYRA to private hands, rejected the Cuomo proposal and the two sides ended up with a simple, one-year extender of the existing board structure. The governor’s appointees will dominate the NYRA board now until October 2017 under the terms of the extender legislation signed into law by Cuomo June 23.

Mujica took to the local newspaper in Saratoga Springs after John Hendrickson, who owns a Saratoga stable along with his wife Mary Lou Whitney, spent several weeks slamming Cuomo in various news outlets. Hendrickson earlier in June resigned as Cuomo’s special adviser to the NYRA board.

In a recent Saratogian article titled “Hendrickson: Cuomo anti-Saratoga,” the Thoroughbred industry executive was quoted as saying the legislature kept Cuomo “from committing grand larceny” by blocking his NYRA bill. He said Cuomo “clearly demonstrated that he is anti-business, anti-racing, and anti-Saratoga.”

Mujica called the article “myopic” and said the legislature’s plan included a number of flaws, including failing to protect Saratoga racing in the face of possible New Jersey casino expansion that could hit New York racing revenue generated by VLT casinos. Mujica said lawmakers’ plans “shielded” NYRA from public meeting requirements and ended the life of the state panel overseeing NYRA’s finances.

“Given NYRA’s checkered history—financial mismanagement, scandal, and dependency on tax subsidies to operate—diluting oversight and accountability is no way to go,” Mujica wrote.

Mujica said Cuomo’s plan would have sharply boosted NYRA’s investments in Saratoga. NYRA officials have questioned the administration’s characterization of its finances.

In a June 27 response, the heads of Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing and the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce hit back at Mujica, saying lawmakers in both legislative houses rejected Cuomo’s plan.

“Just one person stood in the way of an agreement and that was the governor,” the groups said in response. “If the governor had a plan that is great for racing, they would have released their plan a long time ago and asked stakeholders within the industry for input. Their plan was released just days before the end of the legislative session.”

The Saratoga Springs-based groups said Cuomo’s plan violated key provisions of the 2008 franchise agreement that extended NYRA’s operation of Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Race Course, as well as a federal bankruptcy judge who approved the agreement between the state and NYRA.

“We’re ready to sit down with the governor to discuss how to proceed,” said the letter written by Concerned Citizens’ Maureen Lewi and the Saratoga chamber’s Todd Shimkus. “If the governor is serious about protecting our national treasure, let’s get together right away to draft legislation which can then be acted on as early in the 2017 legislative session as possible.”