New York State of Mind

By Mike Kane

Entering the final quarter of 2021, the newly expanded We Are NY Horse Racing coalition launched a campaign designed to promote the value that horse racing brings to the Empire State.

Central to its message are stats from a 2018 report by the American Horse Council that the racing sector’s economic impact on the state was $3.08 billion and 19,704 jobs. The AHC study also said the horse industry in New York had a total output to the state economy of $5.3 billion, an employment impact of 42,400 jobs and that 1.3 million acres of land are used for horse-related purposes.

New York has four Thoroughbred tracks and seven for Standardbreds.

The coalition added harness horsemen, business associations, private companies, labor unions, regional off-track betting corporations, chambers of commerce and aftercare organizations. It told its story through television and a variety of other advertising platforms, punctuated by lobbying efforts at the state Capitol.

“It is more critical than ever to educate and inform both lawmakers and the public about the importance of horse racing to the New York economy,” said David O’Rourke, President & CEO of the New York Racing Association. “We’re thrilled with the growth and immediate impact of the We Are NY Horse Racing coalition, which now includes more than 50 member organizations who advocate on behalf of the sport and its stakeholders. The coalition will be a permanent fixture in Albany and on the airwaves moving forward.”

The coalition’s drive began a few weeks after the New York Racing Association concluded its 40-day Saratoga season with a record all-sources handle of $815,508,063 while listing average attendance at over 26,000. For the first time, the daily average handle at Saratoga topped $20 million.

Saratoga’s success, following a season without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, propelled NYRA to finish 2021 with an all-sources handle on its races of $2,373,772,916, its largest handle figure since 2008. The daily average handle for the year with 201 racing dates was $11.8 million, a 21.6 percent jump from the 217 days in 2019.

Kentucky, which has roughly 20 percent of New York’s population but is home to the hugely popular Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby week, had $1,325,418,494 in handle at its five race tracks in 2021 according to Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stats.

Horses at the starting gate of a racetrack

While NYRA was enjoying strong business, New York’s Thoroughbred breeding business was making a comeback from the difficult 2020 season when the important Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred sale was cancelled. According to the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund stats, a total of 530 New York-bred yearlings, just shy of the record 534 of 2013, were sold for $33.3 million last year. The average sale price of $62,882 was the second-highest in history and up 9.2 percent from 2019. A record 136 weanlings sold for an average of $42,780, the third-highest on record. In the 2-year-old market, 256 New York-breds sold for $68,970, a huge jump from 2020, and above the $63,322 average of the previous five years.

Tracy Egan, the longtime executive director of the breeding fund, which last year administered $17,650,749 in awards for breeders, stallion owners, owners and purse enhancements, said the industry was recovering and regaining stability. The state-bred program is well-supported at the three NYRA tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park and Saratoga, and at Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack. In 2021, a total of 643 races restricted to New York-breds were run, the third-highest in the country for state-bred programs, but the $42,187,317 paid out was by far the highest figure in the nation.

The Breeding and Development Fund report showed 259 active breeding farms in New York in 2021, a drop of seven from 2020, but Egan said the land is still being used for riding horses.

Fasig-Tipton staged its 100th Saratoga Select Sale of yearlings in August, which yielded two-day total sales of $55,155,000. The average of $408,556 was less than a percentage point below the record. The median was $350,000, tied for first in the sale's history.

NYRA intends to redevelop Belmont Park and consolidate racing in the metro area to a single venue with the expected closing of Aqueduct. NYRA was unsuccessful in its bid for $450 million in state-backed bonds during this legislative session, but is continuing its push under new board chairman Marc Holliday. NYRA is aiming to renovate the three existing tracks, possibly add a synthetic surface and rebuild the massive but under-utilized grandstand and clubhouse building. Meanwhile, breeders and the fund are adjusting to keep pace in the highly competitive bloodstock business.

Najj Thompson, the executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc., said the coalition is making plans for another economic impact review to illustrate the importance of racing and breeding in the state and keep the sport in the public consciousness.

“We're looking to have a comprehensive, full study take place, and we're working on that right now,” Thompson said. “We're using our active resources to work with firms and do studies to find out how much of an impact we've made since 2018.

“Those are the latest numbers we have, but, at least anecdotally, we've seen nothing but positive experiences and impact. We really want to find the empirical evidence.”