ALBANY — It’s a long shot, but a coalition of animal rights activists and progressive groups want to bring an end to high stakes horse racing subsidies in New York state.
A coalition of groups, ranging from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the Alliance for Quality Education, want lawmakers to halt the financial perks enjoyed by the state’s thoroughbred racing industry, claiming the money would be better used for education, healthcare or human services.
“Horse racing is a sanctioned gambling business in New York, but unlike the casinos and lotteries that return billions to the state, racing drains hundreds of millions a year in earmarked subsidies and specialized tax benefits,” the advocates argue in a letter sent to lawmakers this week.
The groups estimate that the industry is subsidized $250-$350 million annually, no small number considering the financial impacts of the COVID pandemic on the state’s coffers.
No other states, including Kentucky, offer such sweet financial perks, they claim.
“The industry boasts of tradition, job creation and economic impact to justify these huge subsidies, but this messaging is merely PR and doesn’t ring true,” they write.
The letter leans on several problems that opponents say have plagued racing in recent years including alleged criminal conduct, such as federal charges filed last year against 27 horse trainers, veterinarians, and others in a race-fixing scandal.
Along with PETA, AQE and animal rights group NYCLASS, a host of progressive groups including Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change and Housing Works are on board with the effort. The groups are also launching a six-figure ad blitz to convince lawmakers to scale back the incentives in the state budget, which is due April 1.
The subsidies is “money that should instead be used to feed, house and educate needy New Yorkers,” said Steve Newman, the former chairman of the New York Racing Association Franchise Oversight Board and a longtime critic of the industry. “It’s time to take the failed racing industry off the corporate welfare program.”
Supporters claim that thoroughbred racing alone is responsible for 19,000 jobs and has a more than $3 billion annual economic impact on the state.
Patrick McKenna, a spokesman for the New York Racing Association, said referring to racing support payments as subsidies — which are provided for through state law and the NYRA franchise agreement — is unfair.
Rather, he argues, payments flow to NYRA because the entity conveyed its land and intellectual property to the state in 2008 in exchange for video lottery terminal payments made annually as “compensation for that transaction.”
“These payments further the sport’s ability to serve as an economic engine — particularly in support of the tourism and hospitality industries, which have suffered significantly due to the COVID crisis,” McKenna said.
NYRA operates the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga tracks, all which have seen purses balloon in recent years thanks to revenue from so-called racinos that include video-lottery terminals, or VLTs.
Neighboring New Jersey ended direct state-funded subsidies for struggling tracks in 2011, only to see them restored by Gov. Murphy in 2019.
McKenna chalked up the opposition in the Empire State to a deeper desire from animal rights groups to end horse racing altogether. Both PETA and NYCLASS have rallied against the industry, arguing that it is unethical and leads to large numbers of preventable equine deaths.
“Organizations like NYClass and PETA have long been philosophically opposed to horse racing and make no secret of their desire to end the sport,” McKenna said. “Rather than a public policy disagreement, this is nothing but a disingenuous and cynical ploy to damage horse racing to further a political agenda and New Yorkers won’t fall for it.”