Excelsior Racing Gains Two New Members

A group vying to take over the New York Racing Association's Thoroughbred franchise has added the state's former top racing regulator and a veteran trainer to its ranks.

Jerry Bilinski, the former chairman of the state racing and wagering board, and Gary Contessa, a board member of the New York Horsemen's Association, have joined Excelsior Racing Associates, one of 15 groups that are preparing bids to operate Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga racetracks.

The addition of Bilinski, a veterinarian, is significant because of his ties with Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, the powerful Republican leader who represents the Saratoga racetrack and will have a major say in who wins the next franchise. Bilinski resigned in June as an advisor to Bruno on racing matters, but he has had a close friendship with Bruno for years.

"I have chosen to work with Excelsior because they provide the best vision and support for the New York Racing franchise moving forward. I believe strongly in advancing and strengthening the racing industry by ensuring animal welfare, improving conditions in the backstretch, and creating jobs for the state of New York. My role as an advisor to Excelsior Racing Associates will allow me to pursue those goals, and to be part of a team with a proven track record of success,'' Bilinski said in a written statement.

The addition of Bilinski and Contessa comes after Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey earlier this week joined Excelsior, and spoke before an Albany Law School panel in Saratoga Springs on behalf of the group before an audience of who's who in the racing industry, which also included several members of a state panel overseeing the bidding process.

Contessa's addition to the Excelsior group comes after the New York trainer earlier this year, as a board member of the horsemen's group at NYRA, advocated that the horsemen's organization provide the financial assistance to help form Empire Racing Associates, another group going after the franchise, according to Jeff Perlee, Empire's chief executive officer. The Empire group includes New York horsemen, as well as Delaware North Cos. and the owners of Woodbine racetrack.

"Gary Contessa has never endorsed Empire's bid to take over the New York Racing franchise in any way, shape, or form, and has joined the Excelsior Racing team because he believes that Excelsior provides the best leadership and vision for the future of New York racing," said Katie Burke, an Excelsior spokeswoman.

Bilinski sits on the Cornell University's veterinary college advisory committee and has been a breeder and horseman over the years. The New York-based Contessa ranks third overall in the nation in wins; he has 65 horses in training at Saratoga and Aqueduct.

Excelsior officials have been coy about announcing the entire group backing its efforts, especially its major financiers. Before naming Bailey, Contessa and Bilinski to its ranks, Excelsior officials have identified Steve Swindal, son-in-law of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and Richard Fields, a former top advisor to Donald Trump, as members of the group.