Despite Rumors, Excelsior Says Franchise Bid on Track

The reported departure of Steve Swindal from the New York Yankees--and his ties to the Steinbrenner family as well--has thrown into doubt the future of the group he has led trying to take over New York’s Thoroughbred racetrack franchise.

Several media reports March 29 said Swindal, a top Yankees executive, is on his way out as the team’s heir apparent to George Steinbrenner following revelations that his daughter, Jennifer Steinbrenner, is divorcing Swindal after 23 years of marriage. Media reports said the split was a mutual decision.

Excelsior officials sought to squash speculation that Swindal or the Steinbrenner family, and possibly the entire Excelsior Racing team, was dropping out of the process to select a new franchise holder to run Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga.

"The Ad-Hoc Committee (on the Future of Racing) reviewed all of the current bidders' plans for the future of the racing franchise and chose Excelsior as the clear winner,' Excelsior Racing spokeswoman Katie Burke said in a March 29 statement. "We believe the panel appointed by the governor will reach the same conclusion based on the investment, integrity, and experience Excelsior will bring to the New York Thoroughbred franchise.

"Steve Swindal is an integral part of our team. Over the last decade with the New York Yankees, he has gained extensive experience in managing a world-class sports franchise, and will being that experience to bear with the Excelsior team moving forward."

Throughout the day on March 29, Excelsior officials declined repeatedly to say whether Excelsior will still include the Steinbrenner family representatives that it boasted was on its team. The group last year went out of its way to promote the Steinbrenner name and its ties to Thoroughbred racing as one Excelsior's attributes.

Burke made clear that Swindal has every intention of staying with the Excelsior group. But she could not, she said, be specific about the Steinbrenner family's future plans for the franchise bid.

On March 28, it became public that Swindal, who has not only been Steinbrenner’s son-in-law but also was tapped to succeed him as boss of the Yankees when he retires, would be leaving the Steinbrenner family and the Yankees. The New York Times said Swindal is no longer in line to succeed Steinbrenner, though Swindal does have an ownership stake in the team.

Swindal was the public face of the Excelsior Racing bidding package. Though documents the group submitted to the state last year also listed the “Steinbrenner family” as among those involved with Excelsior--though they stressed that did not include George Steinbrenner himself--Swindal was the front man. He was the only one of the partners the group let reporters speak to, and late last year expressed confidence Excelsior Racing would win the franchise.

Excelsior Racing was recommended last year by a state screening panel to win the franchise, but the new governor, Eliot Spitzer, has said he does not feel bound by that recommendation. Besides Excelsior, three other groups are vying for the franchise: Empire Racing Associates, which is composed of Magna Entertainment Corp., Churchill Downs Inc., Woodbine Entertainment Group, and others; Capital Play, an Australian company; and the New York Racing Association, the current franchise holder.

Questions swirled about Excelsior’s bid package after word spread of Swindal’s pending divorce from Steinbrenner’s daughter and the end of his leadership days at the Yankees. Would another of the Steinbrenner family members, who have been involved in the family’s Kinsman stable operation in Florida step forth? Will the group align itself with some other racing entity or just drop out of the bidding entirely?

Excelsior’s other partners include Richard Fields, a casino developer, and Tishman Speyer Properties, a major Manhattan real estate company.

Public hearings are set to begin next month in New York as part of the Spitzer administration's consideration of the bidders' offers. The administration has said it expects a decision before lawmakers end their 2007 session in June, though there has been growing speculation that NYRA could end up being awarded an extension to operate for a year to give the new Spitzer administration more time to consider the future of the franchise.