State Officials Tell Bid Groups NYRA Should Run Tracks

State Officials Tell Bid Groups NYRA Should Run Tracks
New York state officials told three Thoroughbred franchise bidding groups they want to let the New York Racing Association continue running the state's major racetracks and begin a new bidding process for rights to operate casinos at Aqueduct and Belmont Park.

The groups – Empire Racing Associates, Excelsior Racing Associates, and Capital Play – met with top aides to Gov. Eliot Spitzer June 8 in Manhattan in a series of separate sessions in which the latest idea was presented. One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said state officials told the groups the administration believes NYRA has “not done a bad job" since emerging from the oversight of a federal monitor following its series of criminal and financial troubles in recent years.

Embroiled in a land dispute in which NYRA claims ownership of the tracks, the Spitzer administration floated the idea of letting NYRA remain in control of racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. Plans to eventually close Aqueduct for racing are still being considered by the administration, though the idea has been met with considerable opposition, state officials said.

Though it is one of the four bidding groups, NYRA did not attend the meetings June 8 with Richard Rifkin, Spitzer’s special counsel, and other administration officials. NYRA declined comment.

Sources said the state, if the idea becomes finalized, would demand a “re-constituted" NYRA, which means, for instance, that NYRA’s structure and possibly its board would have to be changed.

The three other bidders were asked in the meetings if they might be interested in bidding again – this time just on a video lottery terminal casino and any related real-estate ventures, such as a hotel. The casinos would be placed at Aqueduct and Belmont under the Spitzer plan being considered.

“They want us to come back to them and see what our thoughts are," Karl O’Farrell, the head of Capital Play, which has its roots in Australia, said of the 90-minute meeting he had with administration officials.

O’Farrell said it was not clear during the meeting whether the state, if it proceeds with a VLT casino-only proposal for the two tracks, would restrict bidding just to Empire, Excelsior, and Capital Play, or open it to any companies. Other industry officials believe there would be a rush of applicants if the state does re-open the bidding just for a casino deal at Aqueduct and Belmont. One individual involved in the franchise process wondered how the state could legally keep others from bidding on any separate plan for casinos at the two tracks.

“We’re going to think about it over the weekend. We still think we have the best team to run racing in New York," O’Farrell said after the meeting. He said Capital Play is in discussions with a company to be its partner in any future VLT casino development.

The Capital Play executive stressed that administration officials made clear several times during the meeting that the latest idea under consideration “is not set in stone."

Any franchise plan still needs approval from the legislature, which ends its 2007 session June 21. However, the Spitzer administration has suggested lawmakers could return this fall to deal with the franchise issue. NYRA’s franchise, begun in 1955, expires Dec. 31.

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