New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer will not seek to re-bid the state’s Thoroughbred racing franchise but does not feel obligated to follow the recommendations of a screening panel that last September released its final report urging that Excelsior Racing Associates replace the New York Racing Association.
The new governor, who already has raised concerns about the process used last year by a screening panel to narrow down the list of franchise finalists, will announce his plans in the coming days for how the bidders should be evaluated. But administration officials said it is not the governor’s plan to re-start the entire process, as some prospective bidders may have been hoping.
“It is not his intention to re-bid the entire proposal,” said Paul Larabee, a spokesman for the Democratic governor.
Spitzer has not yet received the final report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing, which voted unanimously Feb. 21 to release its final recommendation report--three months to the day after it tapped Excelsior Racing over Empire Racing Associates and NYRA. The committee’s recommendation is not binding on the governor and legislature.
“He does not feel bound by it,” Larabee said of Spitzer’s view towards the committee’s recommendation.
Spitzer last fall noted several shortcomings to the franchise-award process. He questioned the logic behind a scoring range for a bidder’s integrity, saying bidders either had integrity or did not. He also raised concerns about the 20-year length of the next franchise, with no period to re-negotiate during that time span or for formal review of the franchisee’s performance.
Members of the screening panel hope their work will be the blueprint for Spitzer and the legislature to use in selecting a new franchise holder to run Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga. The full report was not initially released at the panel’s Feb. 21 meeting in Albany; it was to be made available later in the day on the New York State Racing and Wagering Board Web site.
“We have done our job,” said Valerie Keehn, mayor of Saratoga Springs and a member of the screening panel.
While some officials in Albany have floated the idea of starting the bidding process over, Keehn and other members of the panel urged them to use the committee’s work. “I think the results would ultimately be the same,” Keehn said of the panel’s recommendation of Excelsior.
Excelsior Racing partners are Steve Swindal, general manager of the New York Yankees, casino developer Richard Fields, and Manhattan real estate company Tishman Speyer Properties. Excelsior Racing beat out Empire Racing, a consortium of horsemen, Magna Entertainment Corp., Churchill Downs Inc. and others; a distant third in the panel’s recommendation was NYRA, which has held the franchise since 1955.
“I am only concerned that racing is conducted in a much more professional and accountable way than done in the past,” Keehn said.
Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Sackatoga Stables, which owns Funny Cide, said his first choice to run racing after NYRA’s franchise expires on Dec. 31 is Excelsior. But, he said, there was “more than one viable proposal” the panel received, and that “it is not to say racing couldn’t survive and thrive in New York state” if the governor and legislature did not choose Excelsior.
The Spitzer administration has been quiet so far with its plans for the franchise. Darren Dopp, a spokesman for the governor, said the administration is expected to make an announcement later in the week regarding its plans for the franchise process.
The panel conducted a lengthy review process in which the finalists were judged on a number of factors, including financial health, plans for racing, and revenue sharing for the state.
Seconds after the vote, Excelsior officials began distributing a statement from the group’s partners.
“The Excelsior team is delighted that a bipartisan panel of experts recommended that Excelsior assume leadership of the New York racing franchise,” Swindal said in a statement. “We are even more excited that New York racing fans and taxpayers will now be able to see what we have long known: Excelsior’s proposed plan for the future of horse racing in this great state is the best choice for horsemen, taxpayers, and fans alike.”
Also after the vote, Empire Racing released the following statement: “We appreciate the suggestions of the last remaining committee of the Pataki administration. The non-binding recommendation resulted in a photo finish and now it goes to the decision-makers. To put New York Racing back on top, the next track operator will be the entity that includes New York’s horsemen, and the entity that is judged to be the strongest in the areas of integrity, experience, and economic development.
“These are the priorities identified by Gov. Spitzer, and these are the areas where Empire Racing has been judged superior. We expect these crucial issues will assume a greater importance, not less, going forward.”