Catskill OTB Drops Out of New York Franchise Race

Catskill Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. has become the latest group to drop out of the process to take over New York’s Thoroughbred racetrack franchise.

Industry insiders never saw the OTB as a major factor in the bidding wars, though there has been speculation the Catskill group wanted to end up partnering with others already vying for the franchise.

“We certainly would look to partner with anyone,’’ Catskill president Donald Groth said.

Groth said partnering with the New York Racing Association, the current franchise holder, “seemed like a logical plan.’’ But Groth also said the OTB determined he $100,000 the state wanted in advance to conduct an “integrity’’ review of each interested party was “onerous’’ for a public corporation with a responsibility to provide revenue to local governments.

“These are public monies,” he said. “We have a reputation about how we guard them, and our people decided that spending that money for that purpose would probably not be cost-effective.”

The exit by the OTB came a few days after a joint venture led by Las Vegas casino developer Steve Wynn withdrew its intent to make a play for the franchise.

That leaves the original four bidders: Excelsior Racing Associates, Empire Racing Associates, Capital Play, and NYRA. Excelsior, a group whose partners include New York Yankees executive Steve Swindal and casino developer Richard Fields, was recommended last year by a state panel to take over the franchise now held by NYRA to run Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga.

But the state’s new governor, Eliot Spitzer, has said he doesn’t feel bound by the recommendation made by a panel formed by lawmakers and his predecessor, George Pataki. Spitzer recently began a new, though less defined process, in which bidders will make public presentations next month. He gave bidders until March 31 to submit plans for the franchise, a short timetable the Wynn group cited for bowing out.

Groth predicted the franchise issue wouldn’t be resolved before lawmakers end their 2007 session, now scheduled for late June. Instead, he predicts NYRA will be given a two-year extension of its current franchise to give more time to settle not only on a future track operator, but also the major changes needed in state law to make the business model work for the next franchise holder.

“One of our major reasons to be interested was the legislative aspect,” Groth said. “If there are going to be changes, we would want those changes to benefit local governments, not cut them out.”