Plan Floated Linking NYRA, Excelsior

The Spitzer administration has floated a plan to link the New York Racing Association with Excelsior Racing Associates to run racing and casino operations at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga racetracks.

The proposal, floated in a private meeting by aides to the New York governor and negotiators from the Legislature, includes NYRA giving up its land claims to the three tracks.

Despite rampant industry speculation, government sources said it is unlikely, even if lawmakers accepted the arrangement, that the deal could be approved before the Legislature ends its session June 21. Government officials also said if the idea is not accepted, the Spitzer administration is considering other options, including re-bidding the entire franchise for a complete takeover by just one bidding group; such an idea, given the timing, would almost certainly have to include an extension for NYRA to run racing into 2008 while a new process is completed.

Under the plan floated, NYRA, which has held the franchise since 1955, would run the racing side of the business and Excelsior would develop and operate casino and other ventures, which could include a hotel or entertainment facilities at one or both of the New York City area tracks.

Sources close to Spitzer said Excelsior was the only one of the bidders that expressed an interest in working with NYRA. Excelsior’s partners include Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, casino developer Richard Fields and two prominent real estate developers, Steven Roth and Richard Bronson. Fields was a financial supporter of the governor’s campaign and Excelsior’s advisors over the past year have included William Mulrow, who has been close to Spitzer over the years.

Sources cautioned that no plan has been settled on, and that the idea was presented to legislative negotiators to determine possible interest by lawmakers.

The Spitzer administration declined comment.

“They haven’t presented us with anything,’’ said John McArdle, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

The other bidders for the franchise, which is now held by NYRA and expires Dec. 31, are Capital Play and Empire Racing Associates, whose partners include Churchill Downs, Magna Entertainment and some New York horsemen.

Word of the idea came as Empire officials held a news conference in Saratoga urging the state not to separate out the racing side of the franchise from the casino business.

Aqueduct has already been approved for a video lottery terminal casino, but the project was been stalled for years and MGM Mirage recently pulled out as NYRA partner for the casino deal. That has led the Spitzer administration to re-examine the structure of racing in the state, including a plan that would lead to the eventual closing of Aqueduct’s racetrack – yet still keeping a casino there – and winterizing Belmont along with the addition of a casino there as well. Saratoga would remain casino-free under any plan ever considered.

In its current bankruptcy court proceedings, NYRA claims ownership of the three tracks. Industry insiders say the Spitzer administration is concerned about losing the legal fight over the land claims and would rather work out a deal in which NYRA would keep the racing side of the franchise in exchange for giving up the track claims. The Spitzer administration is also demanding that the current NYRA board resign in return for another franchise and a new management structure be put in place.

NYRA officials could not be reached for comment.