By: Tom Precious

Regulators in New York have approved new flexibility in Thoroughbred claiming race rules, though they ordered some last-minute conditions as a bow to the restrictions the same regulators put in place after a high number of equine deaths at the 2012 Aqueduct winter meet.

The new rule adopted by the New York State Gaming Commission permits a larger purse-to-price ratio in claiming races. The state has required the minimum price for horses entered in Thoroughbred races be at least 50% of the value of a race’s purse level.

The agency’s board gave approval Jan. 28 to add language to that rule permitting tracks—with state approval—to lower that minimum price if a track “has implemented measures to ensure close examination of the competitiveness, soundness, and safety of each horse entered in such a race.”

But the board’s chairman, Barry Sample, said that the rule change is “conditional.”

“It’s inherent in horse racing that there are risks in that activity,” Sample said.

But he said the rule is being changed with the direction to the agency’s staff, including Dr. Scott Palmer, the state’s equine medical director, to “exercise discretion” in granting changes to the 50% threshold on a “case by case basis.”

Sample said the board also wants documentation of any such changes to the rule in claiming races along with a report due to be given to the commissioners at its May meeting.

At least one board member in the past has publicly raised concerns about changing a rule the commissioners believe had a positive impact on equine safety. The board received one public comment on the change that raised concerns about horses being at risk if the rule was relaxed.

Robert Williams, the agency’s executive director, told the board Monday the rule change “appropriately balances” Thoroughbred race competition with safety. “Staff continues to recommend adoption of this rule proposal,” he told the board.

The NYSGC also gave preliminary approval to a measure bringing sports betting to four upstate casinos. The move signals the state—at least for now—is rejecting attempts by an array of interests, including the New York Racing Association, to more broadly offer sports wagering to consumers.

A move is underway by some legislators to permit online sports gambling, a move advisors to Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said is unconstitutional.

Given approval Monday, the proposal—which now goes through a 60-day public comment period—limits sports gambling to four casinos upstate that were part of a gambling expansion effort in 2013. The casinos are located in the southern Catskills, Albany area, southern Tier west of Binghamton, and a spot between Rochester and Syracuse. Bets would only be permitted in person at those casinos according to the regulation given preliminary approval.

The 2013 enabling bill giving life to those casinos included a provision that those casinos could offer sports gambling in the future if a federal sports wagering ban was ever lifted. That came last year via the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned federal law restricting sports gambling nearly exclusively to Nevada.

The state’s three upstate Native American tribes that own casinos would also be affected if Monday’s rule becomes permanent later this spring. All three are permitted, via compacts, to offer the same types of wagering at the four upstate casinos.

The NYSGC also approved racing, simulcasting, and video slot terminal casino licenses for MGM Resorts to operate the Empire City Casino and Yonkers Raceway in Westchester County. It clears the way for the closing on MGM’s $850 million purchase of the facility.

The facility is among those being eyed as possible locations for when the state will consider whether to expand the number of commercial casino licenses from the present four to seven—the number permitted by voters statewide in a referendum in 2013.