Empire Racing Willing to Increase Funds to Secure Franchise

Empire Racing Associates said it is willing to put more money on the table for the state of New York in order to win the franchise to run racing over the next 20 years at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga racetracks.

"That is not set in stone,'' Jeff Perlee, Empire's chief executive officer, said of his group's bid package. He declined to say how much more the group – which includes New York horsemen, Magna Entertainment, Churchill Downs, Woodbine and Delaware North – would offer the state to win the franchise.

Excelsior Racing Associates, whose partners include New York Yankees partner Steve Swindal and casino developer Richard Fields, recently won the non-binding recommendation of a bi-partisan state government commission over Empire and the New York Racing Association, whose franchise to run racing ends Dec. 31, 2007.

Officials with Excelsior on Dec. 7 criticized Empire for floating the idea of changing its bid offer. "Instead of accepting this decision, Empire is now attempting to undermine the Committee's work by asking for a "do-over" in the hopes that it can make its bid as strong as Excelsior's,'' Excelsior spokesman Howard Wolfson said of decision last month recommending Excelsior take over the franchise.

"Unfortunately for Empire, once the race is over, it can not be re-run, and Excelsior was the clear winner at the finish line. Our package is the best one for fans, horsemen, and taxpayers, and no amount of rhetoric after the fact from Empire will change that,'' Wolfson added.

While the award was not based solely on fees paid to the state, Excelsior did offer the most: $100 million up front, or $200 million if slots at Belmont are included; Excelsior also volunteered to pay NYRA's existing employee pension obligations, which total more than $50 million. Empire, state officials say, offered the state $100 million up front and $7.5 million a year.

Since the decision by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing, Empire officials have gone on a public relations blitz trying to push support their way. A final decision is up to the governor and state lawmakers; precisely when that happens is unclear because the current governor, Republican George Pataki, leaves office at the end of the month, to make way for Democrat Eliot Spitzer.

Perlee's comments on adding more money to his group's offer to the state was made Dec. 6 as Empire released its latest set of proposals to draw attention to its bid. Nearly half of the new plans unveiled – including a New York Horse Park in Saratoga County – were not included in the group's bid.

"Our thinking didn't end in August,'' Perlee said of the still-evolving Empire package.

Empire's latest scramble to catch the attention of state officials who will choose the franchise winner includes the horse park, which will feature horse shows and other equine events modeled on the Kentucky Horse Park. Empire says it is also devising a plan to help the state's breeding program, which will include an initial $50,000 from Empire, and a push to get the World Equestrian Games to the Syracuse area by 2014 or 2018.

Empire's plan, apparently aimed at moving upstate lawmakers to its side, said it would provide at least $20 million to Cornell University's equine programs and money to an upstate state university's effort to build an equine rehabilitation facility at Morrisville. It also called for alliances between Empire and off-track betting corporations to create mega-sports bars that could serve as off-track betting hubs. Perlee said the OTB plan is intended to help "find common ground...rather than work against each other;" NYRA and the OTBs have been in a fierce fight for betting dollars over the years.

Empire officials have sought to portray Excelsior's interest as being more on the gambling side of the business and not racing. "I don't think this is about New York's casino future,'' Perlee said.

State officials involved in the selection process, though, have voiced concerns about the many Empire stakeholders from around the United States and Canada that could dilute the influence of New York racing. None of the Empire partners hold more than a six percent stake in the group, which Perlee said was done to ensure no one entity dominated the organization.