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Chairman keeps all tracks in mind

The popular Saratoga meeting was in full swing last week when John D. Sabini, the chairman of the New York State Racing and Wager Board (RWB), sat down for an interview.

As the state's chief regulator, Sabini is no stranger to New York racing. He's a former horseplayer, fan and ultimately its leader as a state senator heading the Senate Racing, Wagering and Gaming Committee. He was appointed to his position by former Governor Paterson in August 2008.

The chairman is passionate about racing in New York and as the top regulator makes sure that the wagering public is protected from cheating and corruption.

Sabini gave his impressions on how the Buffalo area harness tracks are doing with respect to regulatory compliance and in general.

"I think Jim Mango and his management team at Buffalo Raceway is extraordinary," he said. "It is a tough place; they race at a tough time of year in Buffalo with a lot of winter racing. They are faced with competition from Indian casinos, the casino in their own place, and racing in Canada. I think they do as good a job as they can do. The paddock area at Buffalo Raceway is as good as any in the state now. All three Board members were very impressed with what they saw at Buffalo Raceway during our recent visit.

"Batavia has some new leadership. They have a fairly old plant that's doing pretty good. They have a better race schedule than Buffalo, as they race in warmer weather. They do as good as they can with the resources they have."

Thoroughbred tracks such as Churchill Downs, Del Mar and Hollywood Park have had great success with Friday night racing in attempts to attract younger fans.

Sabini thinks it's easier said than done in New York, where major infrastructure issues abound, although he sees potential at nearby Finger Lakes Casino and Race Track.

"While it is the hot thing, I don't know if we're necessarily in the best shape with the plants that we have. I'd like to see night racing at Finger Lakes. I think that would be the place that would be the most attractive."

Saratoga would oppose such a change, he said, and Belmont doesn't have the necessary lighting and heating systems.

Trying night racing would take some serious investment at the Farmington track, but the Chairman's vision is thought provoking.

Sabini didn't mince words when sharing his feelings on where he feels the industry should be headed.

"I can't take back what I've said in the past when I was in the Legislature. The most successful meets in the country are the ones that have a beginning, middle and an end," said Sabini, who clearly feels that less is more. Many industry pundits feel the same as Sabini on this issue, that contraction and a reduction of race dates wouldn't be a bad thing.

"I am of the personal opinion the fact that the shortest meets are the most successful ones tells you something. Keeneland, Del Mar, Saratoga, and to some extent Monmouth come to mind. I am of the personal opinion we should do a little less, but I know it's a controversial issue."

Sabini poses some interesting questions.

"The question will become, and we're seeing this in New Jersey, is it government's responsibility to push a product that has a limited fan interest? Should we be racing at tracks where there are dozens, in some cases, of people watching the live product? It costs the state money for us to do that. Some of the talk of whether that is a good idea needs to continue. Are we subsidizing people's livelihoods in an economic model that doesn't work in a rational way in 2011?"

Sabini sees the windfall from the new Aqueduct video lottery terminals as a potential way to make capital improvements to the tracks to make them more customer friendly.

"Frankly, there are some hospitality improvements that NYRA is looking at. A lot of our venues are not up to the entertainment venues that you go to when you go to a sporting event in the year 2011. We now have The Post at Saratoga, the first place where you can have a drink at the track and not feel that cigar smoke from 10 years ago is still around you," Sabini said.

Attendance has been shrinking nationally and the chairman feels that tracks don't have the same attractions that other sports have to offer at their venues.

"NYRA is talking about a fancy bar at Aqueduct called Brooklyn Water Works that will be a nice venue. When you go to places at CitiField or Yankee Stadium, it's all about what's going on at the venue, and we don't have that at the race tracks. That may be one of the reasons why younger people don't come, because they don't feel it's a welcoming place," concluded Sabini.

When asked to name his biggest accomplishment on the board, Sabini was quick to point out the savings for taxpayers made by moving the drug testing lab from Cornell to a state facility.

"The largest expense we have is the Equine Drug Program," said Sabini. "Moving the lab work from Cornell to the State University of Morrisville under the direction of Dr. George Maylin allowed us to use a state facility and centralize lab operations saving a significant amount of money."

Dr. Maylin's testing program is thought of as one of the most advanced and comprehensive of any in the United States.

"The drug testing technology gets better and better. We have some very expensive equipment in New York, some of which has been financed by the horsemen," Sabini said, adding it was an important step forward.

"It's still one of the simplest of sports. It's who crosses the line first. It is still a very basic sport without much in the way with bells and whistles. Our focus is on the drug testing and surveillance," said Sabini.

Sabini cited several goals that represent his Board's philosophy as chief regulator in the State.

"We have to make sure we have the money to continue to ensure integrity for the wagering public. Making sure the guy who puts $2 through the window is betting on a race where the horses are as drug-free as possible under our rules and that the tote system isn't being monkeyed with in ways that don't give him a fair payout," said Sabini.

"For too long, racing regulators were accused of being too soft and too phlegmatic in reacting. That is something I'd like to see change.

"One of the reasons that the business of horse racing has been so challenged in the last 20 years, is that a lot of people have the perception that it's not always on the up and up and that we're not treating the animals properly. That is a perception that costs the industry. We need to make sure we treat the four-legged athletes involved with racing in a humane way as possible," Sabini continued.

It's refreshing to know that the chief watchdog in Albany not only has Western New York interests in mind, but also can think outside of the box when it comes to controversial industry issues and the long-term strategies to improve the game.

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Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace