NYRA Advancing Idea of In-State ‘Super Lab’: TDN 8/10/16

By: T. D. Thornton

When the New York Racing Association (NYRA) Reorganization Board of Directors last met on May 25, there was a hint of optimism that by the time the next meeting rolled around, board members might be discussing transition strategies for a return to some hybrid form of public/private governance.

No such transition will happen in the near future though, because on June 17 Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the extension of state oversight for the franchise for one more year.

Thus, the NYRA board’s Aug. 10 meeting in Saratoga Springs returned to the familiar agenda it has more or less maintained since 2012: Wednesday’s get-together was a 90-minute affair featuring few probing questions from board members as NYRA executives detailed quarterly and year-to-date financial reports interspersed with updates on various capital improvements, racing operations strategies, and customer-centric initiatives.

Yet one ambitious long-range project, discussed near the end of the meeting, is quietly gaining traction from within the board’s Equine Safety Committee: The idea of a “super lab” drug testing facility that might be established in partnership with the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC).

Board member Marc Holliday, who chairs the Equine Safety Committee, said it is a “top priority” for his committee to advance the creation of “a super lab testing facility in New York State to sort of replace and improve upon the facility that we currently have, which is acceptable in terms of what it’s doing, but clearly could be greatly enhanced.”

With the aim of having a realistic budget and scope for the project in place by the first quarter of 2017, Holliday said the NYRA committee has resolved to work with the NYSGC on series of actions that will start with benchmarking the 15 or so lab facilities nationwide that provide racehorse drug testing services to determine what New York would need to do to be at the forefront of that class.

“I think it’s a big task, but it’s a manageable task,” Holliday said. “But it’s something that needs a big push right now. This is been on the list of things I’ve talked about for the last two meetings. We’ve picked up pace. We now have kind of a timeline and regular meetings that are going to occur.”

NYRA chief executive officer and president Christopher Kay has also been advocating for the project.

“We met the other day with the executive director of the gaming commission,” Kay said. “And so we are now in the process of trying to gather all the data that would be necessary for the determination of the cost of construction of a building, the amount of equipment that would be needed for a super lab, the extent to which there is existing equipment available that could be used…the number of

[qualified staffers] and their areas of expertise. And then the other component, which is research. How do we try to find monies for research?”

To that end, Kay said an effort is underway to create “a NYRA foundation, so that people who wanted to donate money for research could do so to NYRA, a not-for-profit organization, that could be used, when the time comes, for the appropriate research.”

Holliday said another possibility that could be explored is the outsourcing of the new lab’s services to other racing jurisdictions around the country, “which obviously would create another revenue source, which could therefore support more operations and more equipment.”

Holliday said “We’ll identify the funding need, but how people act on and contribute to show that this is a priority is a separate question. The funding issue may take much longer than through the first quarter [of 2017] to get resolved.”

Kay underscored that Holliday has been the driving force behind the lab initiative.

“Somebody gave Marc a whip, and he’s using it, and so we will get it done,” Kay said.

Delving into the NYRA financial reports, second quarter overall results “exceeded budget expectations,” according to figures provided in the meeting packet, which also disclosed that “NYRA had operating income from racing operations at $5 million before VLT funds, $1.9 million favorable to budget and $112,000 less than the same period last year.”

Through the first 16 days of the Saratoga meet, Kay said all-source handle is up $3.9 million (+1.5%) over 2015 comparatives. Yet despite on-track attendance also being up 1.5%, Kay said on-track handle is down $2.7 million (-4.25%), “which is primarily attributable to two bad weather days, one of them a weekend day that we experienced in late July. We’re also looking at the extent to which people are using their mobile apps, and therefore wagering on-track with that device as opposed to going to our tellers and our self-service machines.”

The topic of reprivatization came up only briefly at the start of the meeting, when chairman Michael Del Giudice gave opening remarks: “The legislation, as you know, to revert to private was postponed, so we’ll take that up after Labor Day with the governor’s office and the legislative leaders. And hopefully January, either in the budget, or separately in a bill, we look forward to coming up with agreement on all three parties, and us, in terms of privatization. So that item is obviously the number one item on the agenda for next year.”