Recommendation on Franchise-Holder May Be Delayed

Officials in New York are considering pushing back the Sept. 29 deadline for the recommendation by a state panel on which entity should be awarded the franchise now held by the New York Racing Association.

The possible delay by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing could be approved as early as Sept. 15, when the nine-member panel is scheduled to meet in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Besides having more than 11,000 pages of bidding documents to pore through, the panel's request to hire an outside accounting firm has not yet been approved by the state comptroller's office. Officials said the firm's expertise in going over the financial details of the bids is necessary.

One individual close to the process said one idea being discussed is not to have a firm deadline placed on the decision in case other unexpected delays arise.

"That is completely and solely up to the committee," Robert Williams, the committee's executive director, said when asked about the possibility of moving back the looming deadline.

Williams said there is nothing on the formal agenda for the Sept. 15 meeting of the board. "That's not to say it's not going to be there at the end of the day," he said.

The board is expected to go into executive session soon after the start of its meeting, at which time the members are expected to begin the process of scoring the lengthy and detailed responses by four groups that submitted bid packages to the panel.

Four groups submitted franchise bids by the Aug. 29 deadline set by the panel. They were NYRA, Empire Racing Associates, Excelsior Racing Associates, and Capital Play of Australia. Empire Racing's partners include New York horsemen, Magna Entertainment Corp., and Churchill Downs Inc. Excelsior Racing's partners include Steve Swindal, a son-in-law of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and casino developer Richard Fields.

The bidding decision by the committee, which is composed of appointees of Gov. George Pataki and the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate, will be non-binding. Some of its members hope a decision is made this year for a new franchise-holder; for now, that appears extremely unlikely. NYRA has held the franchise since 1955; its right to operate Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga expires Dec. 31, 2007.

Most sides expect the franchise decision to be made next year. A new governor will take office Jan. 1, and legislators have already publicly said they don't expect Pataki, who is leaving after three terms in office, to be involved in the final decision.

However, there is much speculation that the legislature might return to the for a joint session after the November elections and pass a number of measures. Such sessions routinely involve much legislative horse-trading, and some insiders believe there is a chance Pataki could try to put the franchise issue on the table if lawmakers reconvene in November or December.