Prepared Remarks for the Association of Racing Commissioners International Annual Convention, April 18, 2017
By Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence
Government Law Center
Albany Law School
When Ed Martin asked me to speak about confessions of a recovering racing regulator, I was perplexed. What life lessons do I have? I was a member of the State Racing and Wagering Board in New York for nearly 12 years from 1988-2000. What wisdom can I possibly impart to a new generation of regulators? Did I have any lessons?
One of the most perplexing changes to me was in the agenda of the Association of Racing Commissioners International meeting. When I went to ARCI meetings in the 1990s, they were largely excuses to play golf or to go to the local track. I was the substantive part of the agenda, talking about rules and fouls and ethics. Because I’m old, I have a limited recollection of those conventions, but I do remember being on a dinner cruise to the Statue of Liberty one year and talking to Tom Lomangino who ran the Maryland Racing Commission laboratory. I think we concluded that the saying on the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was actually the poet Emma Lazarus’s subtle reference to Lasix.
Yet now Ed has a convention tackling truly important issues. The only filler in the convention is me. It’s like the traditional poker story often attributed to Warren Buffet. “If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.” I’m the patsy. I’ve gone from the content guy to the comic relief of the ARCI meeting.
In fact, looking at my credentials, I’m probably the founding partner of the firm of former, former and former. Former member of the Racing and Wagering Board, former Acting Co-Chair of the Racing Board, former Deputy Secretary to the Governor for Gaming and Racing, former NYRA Board member, former Columnist, Daily Racing Form, Former Columnist, Hoof Beats.
Also, here is the record of New York racing since I joined on. In 1987, total handle was nearly $3.5 billion. For 2015, the last year for which we have stats, the handle was less than $1.5 billion. When you apply the cost-of-living changes, since I joined the Board, handle is down by nearly 80 percent. Since I joined the board, live harness racing handle – that’s the amount bet at harness tracks on their live product ‒ is down by 97.5 percent. I haven’t even helped the state. Revenue to the state from horse racing is down nearly 90 percent. If you’re looking for whom to blame for the state of New York racing, I could be the primary suspect. I’m approaching the guy who used to run a harness track in New York who said: “I should be in charge of the state’s problem gambling program because I’ve proven conclusively that nobody will bet in any facility that I run.” So you need to question my authority before you accept what I’m saying.
So before I can impart my racing life lessons, let me talk about where I came from.
I was a lawyer who had met Mario Cuomo when I was in law school. When he became Secretary of State in New York, I became an assistant. When he became lieutenant governor, I became his associate counsel and then counsel. I was a special deputy counsel when he became governor. I did much of the state’s ethics work. I helped research speeches. I can say with some certainty that I am the only person to have drafted speeches for both Mario Cuomo and Joe Neglia. I worked on all kinds of major projects. I thought I was a serious, thoughtful, respected attorney.
Of course, the minute I got appointed to the Racing and Wagering Board, I instantly became a hack.
I always get asked about Mario Cuomo’s relationship with racing. Cuomo seemed to have a rocky relationship with racing. It wasn’t that he hated it. He was puzzled by the fascination people had with it. He was baffled by people’s interest in it. And he had a decent amount of experience in it. He grew up in Jamaica, Queens, which had New York’s most successful track, Jamaica. He went to junior high school at a location less than two miles from both Aqueduct and Jamaica. His law partner and close friend Peter Dwyer was a diehard racing fan. Dwyer and his pal Freddy Flynn would even in the old days drive to Harrington Racetrack in Delaware, because Harrington was the only track in the Mid-Atlantic that was open between Christmas and New Year’s. Dwyer would come into the office and say “My ex-partner is the Secretary of State, and I’m the only lawyer in Brooklyn who doesn’t have a pass to the track.” Cuomo’s political career was largely launched by Jimmy Breslin who spent considerable time at the track. At the Department of State, we had a number of racetrack enthusiasts, besides myself. Our administrative director swore that he had a computer program that would beat the harness tracks, Cuomo’s top assistant ended up doing some horse owning and breeding, and our top government lawyer was in a fraternity with an assortment of future thoroughbred trainers. One of his early jobs was to run from Aqueduct to the street outside the track to convey race results to his frat brother’s father who was a local bookie. Oddly enough, our overall boss in the governor’s office – a non-racing type ‒ Mike Del Giudice, became the chair of NYRA. Maybe because Cuomo came from Queens, Governor Carey put him on a racing study panel, and he came away from it saying that the white-haired guy, future Hall of Famer Phil Johnson, was the one who knew anything, but Cuomo largely saw us as non-serious, biased supporters of racing, whose opinions we should downgrade.
The one moment I do remember is him coming into the office one day and saying that his wife, who ended up being a close friend of Mary Lou Whitney, was going to Belmont Park that day, and he was studying the entries. There was a horse named State running, who was actually a regally bred horse trained by Woody Stephens. Cuomo was the Secretary of State. State had five letters in it. It was in the fifth race running out of post five. Destiny. Kismet. He bet. And of course, the horse finished fifth.
Initially, I felt that I seemed well placed in 1988 to be on the Racing Board. My parents just before my birth lived three blocks from Aqueduct. They actually entered a contract to buy a house about 100 yards from Aqueduct. You could see Roosevelt Raceway from my high school. Much of my college career was spent at Saratoga Raceway. My suitemates actually sent a letter to Stan Bergstein asking for job advice. One of my suitemates became a harness driver and groom. I helped work on a harness tip sheet in law school. I had season tickets to Saratoga, before the era of Chris Kay, so they were affordable. My wife grew up on Meadowlands Street in the hamlet of Delmar, New York. Many of you may remember the late Clyde Hirt from Sports Eye. My next-door neighbor dated Clyde Hirt’s daughter. What else was I going to do with my life? I had the right breeding to be a racing commissioner.
I was the first of the Slingerlands members of the Racing and Wagering Board. From my appointment until the termination of the Racing and Wagering Board, there was always one member from the hamlet of Slingerlands, which has a population of approximately 7,500. After being reaccomodated, I was followed by Cheryl Buley in 2000, and Cheryl was replaced by my neighbor Dan Hogan, who served until the board was legislated out of existence and replaced by the Gaming Commission in 2013. Thus, for nearly two and a half decades, there was a Racing and Wagering Board member from Slingerlands, New York. We had a Slingerlands seat.
I can remember buying a train ticket from Penn Station to Belmont Park in 1989. I asked for a receipt, and the clerk said, “What a life. Getting paid to go to the racetrack.”
But glorious it was not. It was not the part of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” We were the part of Lake Wobegon “that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.”
And time had truly forgotten the Racing and Wagering Board. Our main office was in Manhattan near Little Italy and Chinatown. Today it’s an NYU dorm in the heart of what is now trendy NoLo. Back then, it was the dive of dives. It was the building where the heroin in The French Connection had been lost, and it must have permeated the building and its inhabitants. Everything in the building not tied down would be stolen. The subway rumbled right under the building, so you had to stop hearings every 10 minutes because the noise was deafening when the trains went by. We shared the building with the state’s Public Service Commission, which, unlike ours, was a substantive agency. Their Albany-based personnel were so scared of going to the building that they travelled in convoys on subways from Grand Central Station to get there. They would not send material to New York City except by UPS, since they assumed that any other mode of transport would get lost. We had no computers. We had, basically, IBM selectric typewriters and a few word processors that used floppy disks. We had no faxes.
I worked mainly in the Albany office, which was far nicer but is only remembered because a third of the small floor we occupied held a large craps table. We were the office with the craps table. In order to use a fax, I had to walk about 500 yards over to my friends at the governor’s office and ask them to fax any info.
I recall our big hearing at the Board in the second month was there. We had an all-day hearing to consider what to do about NYRA’s termination of its gap attendants. I got up the next morning and went to my local newspaper store, and I saw this huge, huge write up of the story by Clyde Hirt in Sports Eye. I had never met Clyde Hirt, but I knew he wasn’t at the meeting. Instead, our chair, Richie Corbisisero, had one of the lawyers in the office take long notes on the meeting and then gave them to Clyde who reran them as his entire story. I thought I had followed Alice down the rabbit hole.
It got worse. Everything about it was old. We had two secretaries in New York in their 80s, Ruthie and Helen. They had the lowest-level jobs in the State, and they were working to provide a living for their sons who were in their 50s and were still not self-supporting.
I got the impression that they threw anyone who had a restaurant background into the agency. Our chairman’s family ran a large restaurant and catering facility. Our director of bingo had run a catering hall and bowling alley in Staten Island. The family of one of our assistant counsels ran a large kosher deli and catering facility on Long Island. We had an investigator who ran a restaurant in New York’s northern suburbs. When the director of bingo retired, he was replaced by a guy who did not run a restaurant, but he had the same name as the people who ran Nathan’s hotdogs; so, obviously, they sent him to the Racing and Wagering Board.
Our meetings when I started at the Board could have been held in secret. I only recall one person showing up for a Board meeting in my first six years there. We had open meetings that nobody attended. We would hold the meeting, and Richie Corbisisero would call up Clyde Hirt and tell him the decisions. We could have met in the backroom on a takeout Chinese restaurant and nobody would have known. We had a press officer who wasn’t allowed to talk to the press. It got a little bit better when Mike Hoblock became chairman and we tried to take the Board show on the road, but, even then, we would hold meetings at racetracks, and the track leadership wouldn’t show up for the meeting.
A year before I got to the Board, there was an infamous incident where Mario Cuomo had called up the office wondering about the agency’s recommendation on a bill to reduce the taxes paid by harness tracks. The Board really didn’t have a position, but other agencies had suggested that the bill would be signed and the Board should recommend approval.
Cuomo phoned asking for an explanation of the approval recommendation. He went through the whole agency as either people weren’t in the office or nobody in the office could give him any explanation of the agency’s position. Just a typical day at the Racing and Wagering Board.
And we got worse. During the early- and mid-1990s recession, we started to shed staff. By 1996, we had nobody around. We shed all our OTB people. We shed our branch offices. We had one racing investigator on central staff. We had one racing administrator on staff in Jim Gallagher, and we had 2.5 attorneys. We had no hearing officers; so I held all the hearings. We could hardly do drug cases because we had no personnel. We had the Flanders case pending for years.
We were saved from being laughingstocks by the arrival of Ed Martin and our chairman, Mike Hoblock, at our agency in 1997, and we began to have resources to actually do our work. We were better. Much better. We had an OTB staff. We did investigations. We did hearings. We had faxes and the Internet.
Yet, it seems that we never grew up to be a real agency. We never climbed out of the rabbit hole. I remember Mike Hoblock saying something that went like this. If the State Health Department tells a facility to jump, the facility says “How high?” When we say jump, everyone ignores us.
I once shared a meal with a former OTB official who simply said, you might put out a policy directive. We would ignore it. You did it again, and we would continue to ignore it. We figured you would lose interest and not come back a third time. The industry will always see racing commissioners the way Tom Meeker at Churchill Downs once characterized them as “gnomes” or those “little cloisters that meet in their own little states and make these grand and wise decisions.” I think I said in a speech fifteen years ago, that tracks thought racing commissions were two-thirds of the old Perry Mason objection. Commissioners were not necessarily incompetent but certainly immaterial and irrelevant.
So with that look back at my career as a racing bureaucrat, what actually have I learned?
If you’re a racing commissioner, you will always be considered part of the problem and not the solution. You will not stop decades of narrative. Racing commissions are always going to be viewed as clueless or out of touch.
It doesn’t matter that racing administrators here today, like Ed Martin, Mike Hopkins, Larry Eliason, Charley Gardiner, John Wayne, and Rob Williams from New York and other states, have had decades of experience in racing and probably more relevant experience than many people running tracks. It doesn’t matter that when racing was popular, nobody thought racing commissions were responsible for the sport’s popularity. But now in harder times, it’s the racing commissions who are to blame. That is the way it has almost been since the advent of the racing commission. For eighty years, the narrative has been set that racing commissioners are clueless. You are not going to change that. I used to think when I started as a racing commissioner, please don’t make us look like the NCAA. But the NCAA has clout. I don’t think we ever reached the NCAA level. Instead, racing commissioners are seen as a combination of W.C. Fields and Captain Hook’s assistant, Mr. Smee. Windbags and toadies. We’re like political versions of stewards. It is so ingrained in racing that you are not going to change the narrative.
If Abe Lincoln, George Washington, and Eleanor Roosevelt returned to earth as a racing commission, they would be considered political hacks serving as the three blind mice of racing.
Iron rule of politics: When an elected official says that they are a friend of racing, and this might not be true in Kentucky, the odds are 3-5 that they are not a friend of racing. Politicians hear “horse racing,” and they see dollar signs. In some states, they see Jockey Club-types ponying up real dollars. In other states, they see it simply that if someone can afford to lose money to race a horse, they certainly have enough money to invest in political candidates. Election season brings out the friends of racing.
Sometimes, I think the wisest words on politics and racing were said by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879. Before the start of a race in Kentucky, Hayes said, “Ladies and Fellow Citizens, I am told that the race is ready to be run and by speaking I should only delay the enjoyment. With so good an excuse for saying nothing, I am sure you will be glad to know that I propose to let the race go on.”
Where is Rutherford B. Hayes when racing needs him?
Again, this statement might not be applicable in Kentucky, but budget people in other states do not like horse racing. They see it – pardon my Yiddish – but as schnorrers, beggars, or posers looking for larger pieces of a diminishing pie. They all see less and less money coming in to the states from racing and yet, at the same time, they see more and more people looking for the crumbs. In the six gubernatorial administrations I’ve seen in New York, most every counsel or program person assigned to racing quickly wanted out. Referring to the movie, horse racing is the Chinatown of the state budget and governmental world. It’s so fouled up that nobody can deal with it.
Because it’s so unimportant fiscally, it takes on another serious repercussion. It becomes the opposite of The Godfather. Racing politics isn’t business. It’s personal. Track representatives get drunk and badmouth politicians. It happens all the time, regardless of parties, and the pols don’t forget. In New York, Governor Eliot Spitzer saw Senate Republican leader Joe Bruno as an enemy of NYRA and supported NYRA as the enemy of his enemy. The Assembly Democrats in New York always saw that racing was important to some Republican leaders, so they would simply hold racing hostage until their other deals would be done.
Nobody takes the racing industry’s financial numbers seriously. The numbers are nice, but, seriously, nobody in government remotely believes them. They are far too used to racing CEO’s complaining annually that the legislature is killing them. You can put your financial impact statements into as many press releases as you want, but nobody believes that a sport where attendance, handle, and breeding are constantly decreasing can continue to be the support of so many thousands of jobs.
You ain’t going to change the face of racing. There’s a reason there is no racing commissioners wing of any racing hall of fame. Nobody’s walking around the racetrack thinking how good racing was when Ashley Trimble Cole or Herbert Bayard Swope chaired the racing commission. Nobody even remembers them. Nobody remembers a racing commissioner or a boxing commissioner. We, you and I, are yesterday’s news.
What should you be doing about it?
I did not think this way when I first joined the Racing Board but after simulcasting and international racing and nearly universal account wagering, there simply is no reason to oppose uniform rules. The thought process that now goes into uniform rules is exceedingly better than it was twenty years ago. It wasn’t always the case, but there now is one world of racing. What happens in New York does affect Kentucky, Florida, California, and even England. Our differences are minor and often pointless. Unless you have an incredibly damn good justifiable public policy reason, uniformity is best. It’s always been true about the rules of the race, but now it’s true of most every rule that racing commissioners promulgate. Racing commissioners do look like the three blind mice when they ignore the need for uniformity.
Respect the sport. Horse racing is really about the oldest sport that exists. It brings out so much to everyone. What sport do we have that has a lineage out of Winston Churchill? Winston Churchill legalized the tote in the UK when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, and his maternal grandfather Leonard Jerome first brought pari-mutuels to America in the 1870s. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, one of the people least likely to ever wager, wrote about thoroughbred horses, “I supposed them to be lank, thin and to the uneducated mind unbeautiful. Quite the contrary. They are the most beautiful living creatures I have ever seen.” Benjamin Disraeli coined the phrase “dark horse” to mean an outsider.
Horse racing has even given the English language a richer vocabulary. Words and phrases like “workout,” “dead heat,” “hands downs,” “all ages,” “turf war,” “morning line,” “pari-mutuel,” “parlay,” “trifecta,” “tipster,” “hot tip,” “daily double,” “quinella,” “across the board,” “exacta,” and “out of the money” all come from racing. Even the nickname “The Big Apple” for New York City is probably a racing term.
When I was on the NYRA Board, I used to get passionate about our history of New York racing. How could the Futurity, which was the most important race in America for decades, be downgraded in status? How could the Ladies Handicap, the oldest stakes race in the country for fillies and mares, become ungraded? Part of what’s great about racing are its traditions. It’s why people weep when they hear “My Old Kentucky Home.”
My parents and my family got drawn into racing when I became a fan in my early 20s. It brought out the absolute best in my family. They never had a bad day at the track. Our trips were planned around going to the track. My father – who probably would not have run after Joe DiMaggio –
would run after Andy Beyer, Harvey Pack, or Steve Crist. No sport brought us together as much as racing. No sport ever could. We need to respect the sport. It’s why racing should be the king of sports.
Racing commissioners need to take the lead on safety. I was nominally, with Gordon Hare of the Oklahoma Racing Commission, the chair of the rules committee in the mid-1990s. We didn’t do much. Nobody except the Jockeys’ Guild even bothered to lobby us. Yet the Jockeys’ Guild asked us to take a position on safety vests. We supported them fairly early, and it actually made a difference. And you can make a difference. You can improve the lives of the people who work in the sport and the animals who are our principal athletes. It should be easy for commissioners to do the right thing here.
The other obvious right thing is charity. There are so many worthwhile charities associated with horse racing, horses, riders, and the backstretch communities. You need to set a good example here for everyone.
Ethics. This ought to be so easy. Obviously, act ethically. There’s a moral imperative here, but there’s a pragmatic one here as well.
This is racing. Everyone sees you at the track or at an OTB. They’re suspicious. Are they making a bet? What are they telling the stewards? What kind of inside info do they have? Will the stewards give the commissioner’s horses more slack because they want to keep their jobs? Are they getting free meals in the trustee’s room? Stay out of it. You are immediately suspect. You don’t need to have everyone looking at you like you’re taking money away from the bettors.
More pragmatically, it’s racing. People understand racing scams. They almost expect them. You’re far more likely to get caught than in most any other activity. I think I could go through the history of the Racing Commission in New York and point out the scandals. The odds are you’re going to get caught. So for your own self-interest, do the right thing.
Finally, and I have been saying this for as long as I became a commissioner, you work for the public, and the public are the fans of racing. Without fans – and most of them are gambling on the sport – you have nothing. They don’t have lobbyists. They don’t have clout. They pay for the sport through their betting dollars. No sport has a closer relationship to its fans. They are the true investors in racing. Never forget it. You need to stand up for their rights. They are what racing needs.
You may not be able to change the course of horse racing. You are certainly not going to change the narrative of the clueless racing commissioner, but you do have the power, if only in a humble and modest manner, to make things better for the people in racing. Stand up for these people, please, because racing is our greatest sport. Please make it better by respecting the sport and standing up for its fans and participants. You’ve been granted a great privilege here in serving as racing commissioners. Please pay it forward.