Thursday, February 25, 2010

NYRA Salaries

Congratulations to NYRA on, albeit reluctantly, releasing the salary data for its top executives. In an age when all sorts of information is available at the push of a computer key or click of a mouse -- it took me all of five minutes to find comparable salaries at Churchill, Magna and Penn National -- NYRA Chairman Steve Duncker's excuse that the salaries were kept secret "for competitive reasons" rings a little hollow. Nonetheless, it's good to see NYRA recognize that its status as a quasi-public entity demands a lot more transparency than is required even of a publicly listed for-profit corporation.

And, make no mistake, NYRA is, for all practical purposes, a public entity. It's franchise deal with the state, under which NYRA gave up its (contested) claim to own the land its race tracks are built on, made it clear that NYRA is the entity through which New York State chooses to operate its (the state's) tracks. All the rest is window-dressing. Not that handing track operation over to NYRA was necessarily a bad thing. Just think about where we'd be if all of racing, and not merely the Aqueduct slots deal, were being managed (sic) by Larry, Moe and Curly (oops, that should have been Paterson, Sampson and Silver).

But, if you're doing the public's work, you need to be open to public scrutiny. With the President of the United States earning $400,000, and most senior New York State officials well under $200,000, it's understandable that there would be some negative reaction to NYRA's salaries, even if they're not, as Duncker took pains to point out, anywhere in the league of salaries at Churchill Downs, Inc., Magna and Penn National.

Sure, execs at other companies in the busiiness make a lot more. At Churchill Downs Inc., CEO Bob Evans got $904,000 in cash, plus stock worth $2,078,000 and options valued at $1,154,000 in 2008, the latest year for which SEC reports have been filed. But Steve Sexton, the guy at Churchill who actually ran the race track, made "only" $423,000 in cash plus $44,000 in stock. Not all that different from what Charlie Hayward and Hal Handel earned at NYRA. At Penn National, where almost all the profit comes from slot machines, salaries and bonuses were obscene -- CEO Peter Carlino took home $1,560.000 in cash, $880,000 in stock, and options worth $4,525,000 -- but that's for running an integrated gambling business, not race tracks.

And, whatever the reason -- and the reason is mostly the dazzling incompetence of New York state government -- NYRA is losing money. In that situation, it's always sensible, if only for public relations purposes, to demonstrate a little belt-tightening. I don't know what Charlie's and Hal's mortgage payments are, but I bet they could have survived even after taking a symbolic 5% pay cut. Might have been a shrewd political move.

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