These are hardly the best of times for the sport of kings. Horse racing, which once attracted tens of thousands to Belmont or Aqueduct on a daily basis, is hemorrhaging fans and losing its place in the larger culture. In desperation, the industry begged the state’s permission to diversify, leading to the growth of casinos at racetracks. New sources of revenue led to larger purses, a spike in fan interest and, it turns out, a startling increase in the number of horses that have died on the track.
Making matters worse, the New York Racing Association, which operates Belmont, Aqueduct and the legendary track in upstate Saratoga, is in hot water. According to a state report, NYRA knowingly withheld about $8.5 million from bettors from Sept. 15, 2010 to late last year. The report charges that NYRA kept 26 percent of the take on exotic wagers such as a trifecta, which requires bettors to pick the horses that will finish first, second and third. Legally, NYRA is supposed to keep no more than 25 percent of the take on these high-stakes wagers.
You don’t have to know a trifecta from a daily double to understand that horse racing is in deep trouble in New York. The Cuomo administration, which has been feuding with NYRA, no doubt will seize the initiative and demand reforms, possibly including the dismantling of NYRA itself.
But concerns go beyond what NYRA executives knew and when they knew it regarding the payouts. The carnage on New York tracks suggests that casino-infused purses are encouraging owners and trainers to race horses that simply are unfit. They are able to do so, it should be noted, because of the widespread use of drugs. One horse that broke down and died on the track at Aqueduct last winter had received more than a dozen injections to mask pain caused by joint disease. The horse was not in any condition to race, but the lure of a casino-enriched purse overrode concerns about the horse’s condition.
When horses break down, as 30 have at Aqueduct since a casino opened at the track late last year, jockeys are placed in grave danger. The 100 percent increase in horse deaths at Aqueduct is scandalous enough; it seems just a matter of time before a jockey dies, too.
The lure of casino cash has corrupted tracks around the country, according to a recent report in The New York Times. The results of the Times inquiry are startling enough to suggest a moratorium on the creation of more racetrack casinos, often called racinos, until the racing industry makes drastic changes, including stricter regulation of drug use.
Here in New York, there is enough evidence to prompt Governor Cuomo to ramp up his demands for greater accountability at NYRA. His own budget director, Robert L. Megna, has said that the charges against NYRA call into question “whether the ‘character and general fitness’ of NYRA executives meets the standard necessary to be licensed in the racing industry of New York.”
That is a serious charge. It demands a serious response.
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