Retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, a partner in Excelsior Racing.

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, a partner in Excelsior Racing.

Barbara D. Livingston

Excelsior Racing Associates Chosen for New York Franchise

Excelsior Racing Associates has been selected by a state government committee in New York to be the next holder of the franchise to run racing at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga racetracks.

The non-binding decision by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing recommended to the governor and state lawmakers that Excelsior get the franchise over the New York Racing Association, which placed a distant third in the scoring system by the panel. Empire Racing Associates, whose partners include New York horsemen, Magna Entertainment and Churchill Downs, scored second behind Excelsior.

The recommended winner is a partnership that includes New York Yankees partner Steve Swindal and casino developer Richard Fields.

The vote by the ad hoc committee came Nov. 21 during an all-day meeting in Saratoga Springs. Details were not immediately available on the vote.

The scoring by the committee was based on two main options: the current franchise with a video lottery terminal casino permitted at Aqueduct, and, adding a casino also at Belmont.

In the first option, Excelsior scored a 94.6 to Empire's 93. NYRA trailed with a 76.5 score. In the second option, Excelsior scored a 97 compared to Empire's 92.75. NYRA came in third with a 76.5 score.

"While the committee will be releasing its full report in the coming weeks, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing has today voted to recommend that Excelsior Racing Associates be awarded the State's racing franchise when the current franchise expires at the end of 2007. The committee's informed recommendation is the culmination of months of hard work and we would expect that the governor and legislature will give it the weight it deserves,'' said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the committee.

The decision by the committee is non-binding on the Legislature and governor. Its fate is made more uncertain by the fact that the governor who created the panel – George Pataki – is leaving office December 31. That has created questions whether his successor, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, will accept the committee's work or look to re-start the entire process. Earlier this year, Spitzer raised questions about the criteria established to score bids.

NYRA has run Thoroughbred racing in New York since 1955.

Excelsior said it would pay New York state $100 million up front and another $7.5 million over the 20 year life of the franchise.

"We are extremely pleased with today's outcome. Today is the beginning of a new era in New York horse racing. For the past several years, New York fans and taxpayers have been waiting for the transparency, accountability, and racing integrity they deserve. Excelsior is happy to announce that the wait is almost over,'' Swindal said in a written statement. "We have a considerable amount of work to do in the coming weeks and months, but are confident in our team's expertise and ability to deliver the very best racing experience in the world to our fans. We appreciate the hard work that the Committee has invested in the evaluation process, and look forward to working with New Yorkers and their elected officials to return our state to its rightful spot atop the world of Thoroughbred racing."

Bennett Liebman, head of a racing think tank at Albany Law School, said the non-binding recommendation "certainly boosts Excelsior into the lead for the NYRA franchise, and especially because Excelsior seems to have the most significant support from the legislative members of the committee.'' Beyond the legislative support, one Excelsior partner -- Fields -- has close political ties to Spitzer, the incoming governor.

The committee includes members appointed by Pataki and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly.

With a new governor taking office Jan. 1, most observers believe there is little chance the issue will be resolved this year, though there has been much speculation that anything is possible when it comes to racing at the state Capitol. "It's hard to believe it's going to get decided this year. There's just too much involved in the process,'' Liebman said.

Excelsior's other partners include Tishman Speyer Properties, a leading real estate developer in New York City. Jerry Bilinski, a former state racing commission chairman and close ally of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, as well as Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey are also with Excelsior.

NYRA officials sought to put a confident spin on the decision.

"Today's announcement by the Ad Hoc Committee on Racing is simply a recommendation and one step in a process that involves the State Assembly, the State Senate, the Governor, and the Racing and Wagering Board,'' said NYRA President Charles Hayward.

"We are certain that state officials will study the bids submitted and seek independent verification of any franchise candidate's suitability to conduct racing in New York before any final recommendation or action is taken. When all the facts are evaluated, we are confident NYRA will be the obvious choice to continue to produce the best thoroughbred racing in the United States,'' Hayward added.