Fight for Franchise Aids New York Political Races

With the future of the racing industry in New York up in the air, the most immediate beneficiaries appear to be state officials running for office this fall, thanks to a steady flow of money from individuals and companies tied in one way or another to the Thoroughbred franchise renewal process.

Tens of thousands of dollars in the past couple months have been deposited into the accounts of statewide politicians and state legislators who will help decide the next owner of the franchise to run Thoroughbred racing in New York, according to a preliminary analysis of new campaign finance reports filed with the state board of elections.

A political action committee tied to leaders of the New York Racing Association Aug. 27 donated $40,000 to a campaign committee charged with keeping the state Senate in the hands of Republicans, according to the filing of the New York Thoroughbred Racing Industry PAC. The contribution comes two months after the same group gave $25,000 to an Assembly Democratic campaign committee.

The Senate and Assembly, along with the governor, will choose who will run Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga racetracks when the current NYRA franchise expires at the end of next year.

A chief competitor to NYRA, Empire Racing Associates, opened its wallet to Democrats and Republicans alike, as well. Empire is composed of Magna Entertainment, Churchill Downs, and a group of New York owners and breeders, among others.

Empire donated $2,000 in August to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the Democratic frontrunner in the governor's race. It also donated $8,500 to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno Sept. 21; the same day, it gave $16,500 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, the group Bruno controls that is battling Democrats in their attempt to take over the Senate. Bruno had been a top defender in the past of NYRA, but he has ties to people or groups connected with Empire as well as Excelsior Racing Associates, another group bidding on the NYRA franchise.

Empire also contributed $20,000 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee. Others tied to Empire also donated in the past couple months, including $1,000 to Bruno by Sportsystems, a subsidiary of Delaware North Cos., which is involved in the Empire effort. Mary Lou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, gave $5,000 apiece to Bruno, and Hendrickson pumped in another $5,000 to the Senate GOP campaign committee; Whitney and Hendrickson are backing the Empire bid.

Other donations from the equine industry in the past couple months, which were filed recently with the state elections board by the various campaigns and political action committees, include $25,000 from the New York Thoroughbred Breeders to the Assembly Democratic campaign committee. The breeders last month also gave $1,050 to the Senate Republican committee; earlier this year, the breeders gave the Senate GOP $19,000 and another $7,000 to Bruno's personal campaign account.

Industry donations the past month or so also included $700 from McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds to the Senate GOP and $5,000 from harness industry executive Jeffrey Gural to the Senate GOP.

The donations are on top previously reported the tens of thousands of dollars Spitzer received over the summer from major horse farm owners in Kentucky, California, and elsewhere around the country.