A day after the head of the New York Racing Association expressed optimism about holding onto its Thoroughbred franchise, Gov. Eliot Spitzer praised the new leadership at NYRA for helping the group recover from its legal troubles.
Spitzer on June 26 added that all options regarding the franchise – including shutting down racing at Aqueduct – are still on the table as his administration wrestles with various ideas for the future of racing in the state.
“There are three tracks. Saratoga is the gem of the racing establishment in the nation. Belmont is one that still draws a fair crowd. Aqueduct, I think, people have had meaningful conversations about whether having the track there is the best use,’’ Spitzer told reporters.
“I’m not saying publicly it should close or it will close. I’m saying it’s a conversation we should have as we move forward to try to figure out how best to maximize the value of racing to New York,’’ he added.
Hours later, the legislature’s top Republican cast doubt on any ideas about selling Aqueduct or splitting up the franchise into one entity running racing and another taking over the gambling side of the business.
“Aqueduct is not for sale. Aqueduct is going to be a racetrack and it is destined to have VLTs there and that’s what the Assembly members want and that’s what my Senate members want,’’ said Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, who represents the Saratoga racetrack.
“I’m hearing that Aqueduct is critical for horse racing in this state when you talk to the horsemen,’’ he added.
Bruno said he also believes discussions about splitting the franchise in two will create problems. “Speaking for myself, I don’t think that works. I don’t think that’s the way to go,’’ said the Republican leader who has the power to single-handedly stop proposals in the Legislature. The franchise renewal needs support from both houses.
Bruno said any plan to split the franchise into separate racing and casino franchises will create “some serious conflicts’’ for determining how much money goes to purses and to state education programs. He said his support in 2001 for permitting VLTs at racetracks was based on a plan to “enhance racing,’’ and he questioned whether a split franchise will end up helping or hurting purses.
In a pre-Saratoga meet news conference the day before, NYRA president Charles Hayward said there is optimism among some in the NYRA ranks that it could be holding onto the franchise for another 20 years.
"I think there are some very real issues, for the goodness of the game and for the best interest of all people in this room, that we get this situation resolved," Hayward said. He noted things like casino revenue sharing for purses will be a major topic of conversation in future franchise talks with the state.
Hayward did not specifically comment on whether NYRA would be willing to end its land claims – it maintains it owns the tracks while the state insists they are public facilities – in return for another franchise run.
The Spitzer administration has already floated the idea of letting a “re-constituted’’ NYRA hold on to the racing side of the franchise, while giving the casino business – VLT facilities likely at both Aqueduct and Belmont – to Excelsior Racing Associates. Spitzer said no final decisions have been made.
But the governor noted his past legal pursuits of NYRA that led to criminal prosecutions and questions about NYRA’s ability to retain the franchise. “There is a new set of individuals there running NYRA who are clearly different than those who had run it in the past,’’ he said. “There’s a professionalism and a concern for fiduciary obligations that didn’t used to exist. So, all that’s for the good.’’
Asked if he was considering turning NYRA into a public benefit corporation – which would be akin to a state agency – Spitzer said, “We haven’t taken anything off the table.’’
The administration has looked at the possibility of constructing a casino at Aqueduct but closing down the racing at the facility and selling land off for development. The plan would also include winterizing and other renovations at Belmont.
Spitzer said his aides have been trying to sort out whether it makes sense to have three different entities – one for racing, one for casinos, and one for real estate development – involved in a future franchise.
“There is significant real estate development opportunities at Belmont, at Aqueduct, even at Saratoga. These are issues that have to be thought through. And those who know how to run a race course don’t necessarily know how to run a real estate company,’’ Spitzer said. He did not elaborate.