Bruno: 'Scare Tactics' Must End
Photo: Skip Dickstein
New York Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno at Press Conference on Feb. 7.

While unveiling what he called the framework of a Thoroughbred franchise agreement, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno blasted the New York Racing Association Feb. 7 for attempting to scare its workers and horsemen by threatening a shutdown Feb. 14.

Bruno called the NYRA threats unnecessary, unrealistic, and not very forthright. He noted that laying off employees without providing 60 days notice would violate federal labor laws.

The legislature’s top Republican, who represents Saratoga Springs and has been blamed by NYRA backers for a delay in reaching a deal, unveiled details of what he believes will be part of a final franchise deal. The provisions were first reported Feb. 6 by The Blood-Horse.

In a bid to make a deal before NYRA’s temporary extension to keep Aqueduct open expires Feb. 13, Bruno said he has agreed to shelve a number of key issues, including whether to change the state's off-track betting structure and whether to permit a video lottery terminal casino at Belmont Park. Bruno said a group will be charged by the end of May 2009 with coming up with recommendations involving a possible merger of off-track betting and NYRA operations.

The final deal will include a VLT casino at Aqueduct, but Bruno said picking an actual operator can be done within the next month and does not have to be part of what he believes is an impending franchise deal. NYRA still needs to sign off on whatever Bruno, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, and the Assembly Democrats agree to on the franchise.

Bruno said the NYRA board, now 28 members, will likely be reduced to 21 members, though that could rise to 23 members. The governor would select three members; horsemen, breeders, and labor unions would get one appointment each; and the Assembly and Senate would get two appointees each. NYRA would retain overall control by having one more board appointment than the state.

The framework deal also calls for a $105-million state bailout of NYRA to help it emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The franchise would last 25 years but include a series of benchmarks involving everything from attendance to financial performance that could lead to NYRA losing its franchise during that period.

The NYRA chair would be term-limited--allowed to serve no more than two four-year terms. Current NYRA board chairman Steve Duncker would have to resign in four years under one provision being eyed.

The deal would increase the percentage of VLT revenue going to horsemen and purses. Under a memorandum of understanding between Spitzer and NYRA, the horsemen would get 6.5% of VLT revenue through higher purses, while the breeding fund would get 1%. Under the deal Bruno said is coming together, it would go to 7.5% for purses over three years and to 1.5% for the breeding fund.

NYRA would also relinquish its ownership claims of the three tracks.

Anxious to stop the portrayal of him as the obstacle to a deal, Bruno said he made his Feb. 7 announcement to improve the comfort level of NYRA workers and horsemen and others in the industry who have been getting increasingly worried about a possible racing shutdown.

Still, he was unable to say the deal he outlined will be in place by Feb. 13 when the NYRA racing extension expires. “Hopefully, we can announce an agreement,” he said.

Sources close to the talks said a number of issues have not been resolved, including whether NYRA will be able to legally borrow money. With NYRA giving up its land-ownership claims, whether it can borrow money by pledging future revenue is one of the questions.

Also, the Jockeys’ Guild had its representatives in Albany, the state capital, pitching a plan to provide new ways to help pay for pensions, health insurance, and other benefits, as well as a change in mount fees for jockeys at NYRA.

Bruno said NYRA has been trying to scare everybody with its threats to shut down racing. “I don’t want these scare tactics to continue,” he said.

Paul Francis, a senior aide to Spitzer, told reporters a couple hours after Bruno's appearance that he didn't have "any problems'' with Bruno's outline of the framework of what the sides could approve.

Francis cautioned that details change every day, but that he is "very hopeful'' a final deal will be in place before the February 13 deadline for the current NYRA extension to run racing.

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