Horsemen's Group Blames NYRA for VLT Delays

The New York Racing Association is to blame for the delays in state approvals needed to begin construction on the long-stalled Aqueduct casino project, the leaders of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association claim.

In an angry response to a letter to its members from NYRA, the horsemen's group heightened the already worsening war of words between the two entities charging that NYRA's threats to declare bankruptcy and go to court against the state over its racetrack land claims are also further delaying the VLT project.

"We need NYRA to provide the state with whatever it needs and we need the state to expedite the approval process,'' the directors of the horsemen's group said in a letter last week to its members. "The health of our industry is at stake.''

A week earlier, NYRA President Charles Hayward and Chairman C. Steven Duncker had written to members of the horsemen's group asking them to pressure the horsemen's board and "hold them accountable for their inaction'' in helping NYRA obtain the final approvals needed from the state to get the VLT project running.

The NYRA leaders accused the horsemen's board of taking a number of steps over the past couple months that have helped delay the VLT approval process. They said the horsemen's group, for example, refused a request to jointly meet with officials with New York Gov. George Pataki to resolve the matter that could be moved along if NYRA and the horsemen spoke "with one voice'' before government officials. Hayward and Duncker said NYRA is "fighting it alone'' without help from the horsemen.

But the leaders of the horsemen's group said they refused to sign onto a letter that NYRA was sending Pataki that "was neither conciliatory nor positive in nature'' and staked out a position that blamed the state entirely for the delay. "We did not believe that the letter was appropriate to send the governor,'' the horsemen's directors wrote. Instead, the horsemen sought – and was granted – their own meeting with aides to Pataki to try to push ahead the VLT project.

"Unfortunately, while the governor's staff expressed an understanding of the plight of the industry and was sympathetic to our concerns, NYRA's threats to litigate its land claims and the possibility of a NYRA bankruptcy, among other things, continue to be a barrier to resolving the delays,'' the letter to horsemen stated.

The feud between NYRA and the horsemen's group has intensified since leaders of the horsemen's organization backed the efforts of Empire Racing Associates – whose partners include Churchill Downs and Magna Entertainment – to take over the NYRA franchise when it expires at the end of 2007. The franchise bidding process for the rights to Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga racetracks is currently underway, though it remains unlikely the issue will be resolved this year before Pataki leaves office.

Richard Bomze, president of the horsemen's group, said the NYRA letter to his members was the "straw that broke the camel's back.'' He said he and others in his group have been pressing for the VLTs for a decade.

In the letter to his members, Bomze and the other group's leaders said "the franchise award process and other issues have no bearing'' on the issue of trying to get VLTs at Aqueduct. The group denied claims that the horsemen are not backing NYRA in the VLT fight because of its alliances with the Empire group; the letter did claim the horsemen want to "end the historical arrogance that NYRA has demonstrated in its dealings with its horsemen that continues even to this day.''

"We have tried to work cooperatively with NYRA for the past four years since its indictment. In fact, had we chosen to attack NYRA for its repeated misuse and misappropriation of horsemen's money and instituted legal proceedings, we could have ended NYRA's tenure much sooner,'' the group wrote its members.

"Rather than threaten the daily conduct of racing by forcing NYRA into bankruptcy, we chose to work cooperatively with NYRA to resolve these and many other serious problems. Regrettably, NYRA doesn't acknowledge the value of our support during the past four difficult years,'' the letter states.

The group also said it would "take whatever steps are necessary'' if NYRA files for bankruptcy to ensure racing continues and purses are paid.