Horsemen sever ties with Empire

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) has severed ties with Empire Racing Associates in an attempt to seek more freedom to lobby state lawmakers.

The horsemen need to re-establish their independence so they can sit down with the powers that be to make sure that issues important to horsemen are met, NYTHA President Rick Violette said in a statement. "The landscape has changed since we signed on with Empire. The rules have changed, the game has changed."

NYTHA's board voted 9-to-1 more than a year ago to align itself with Empire as the firm sought the contract to run Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct.

Violette said his group's ties to Empire have hindered its lobbying power, as NYTHA couldn't deal with the governor's office directly under state procurement rules while it had an interest in Empire, one of the four entities seeking to obtain the state's racing franchise.

"We are now trying to position ourselves so that whoever winds up getting the franchise has to satisfy the needs of horsemen," said Violette. "NYTHA and its 5,500 members are looking forward to working with Gov. (Eliot) Spitzer, Sen. (Joseph) Bruno (R-Brunswick) and Speaker (Sheldon) Silver (D-Manhattan) to make certain that the horsemen's interests are represented and protected in this process."

Horsemen's ties to Empire made the group restricted in its ability to negotiate with state leaders, Violette said.

"It is imperative that the horse owners and trainers be fully represented and their interests, along with the entire thoroughbred industry, be given significant consideration in any resolution of the franchise question," he said.

On Tuesday, July 3, Empire CEO Jeff Perlee wrote to Spitzer's special counsel, Richard Rifkin, who's chairing a committee charged with recommending a preferred franchisee to the governor.

Perlee said Empire and NYTHA expected the franchise question to be settled by now, and NYTHA has other matters at hand that require it to deal with the governor's office. To do so, it had to relinquish its relationship with Empire, he said.

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