NYRA Backing Away From Comments Concerning Future of Aqueduct

New York Racing Association officials are cautiously backing away from comments attributed to NYRA President Charles Hayward concerning the possible closure of Aqueduct if the state grants NYRA another racing franchise after 2007.

Hayward told the Saratogian newspaper that Aqueduct could be shut down and turned exclusively into a gambling facility, while Belmont Park could be refurbished to handle winter racing as part of a move to consolidate racing in the New York City metropolitan area to one track.

"Put a luxury hotel there. Let somebody build and develop that. You don't need two tracks,'' Hayward told the newspaper's editorial board. NYRA officials this week have been meeting with various newspaper editorial boards in New York.

"He was just speaking hypothetically,'' NYRA vice president Bill Nader said of Hayward's statements, which he termed "coffee room talk."

"He was just speaking off the cuff about something that might be a possibility,'' Nader added. Nader, who said NYRA officials have casually talked of such an idea for decades, said there have been no formal talks with NYRA senior management or board members about shutting down Aqueduct.

Hayward's Aqueduct idea comes as the track is being readied for construction of a $170 million casino featuring 4,500 video lottery terminals. MGM Mirage is developing the facility due to open next year.

The idea also comes as NYRA is attempting to sell 80 parcels of land around Aqueduct, land it says is not needed for racing.

What is not hypothetical is NYRA's financial woes. Nader said NYRA is holding up payments to some vendors; he did not have an amount. Also, NYRA is late with a $17.3 million property tax payment to Nassau County and New York City and is also tardy paying $13 million to its pension fund.

Hayward recently told a state oversight panel that NYRA will run out of money by the end of November unless certain financial steps are made. In a sign of its desperation, NYRA is holding an auction of some of its equine art holdings.

NYRA also still owes money to Neil Getnick, a Manhattan lawyer who served as a court-appointed oversight monitor at NYRA for 18 months; Getnick, whose duties recently ended with a glowing report of NYRA that help end the federal prosecution against NYRA, has said he would be charging NYRA up to $5 million for his services. Nader said a "considerable amount'' of Getnick's bill is still owed. "He understands our position and his firm is willing to wait and be placed pretty deep on the list,'' Nader said.

In his comments to the newspaper, Hayward had outlined a plan in which NYRA would give up its land claims of the tracks, have the state renew its franchise and lease the tracks to NYRA for 99 years. Aqueduct would then be sold after 10 years and all downstate Thoroughbred racing would be held at Belmont. Asked if that was a plan or concept NYRA is exploring, Nader said, "That's one idea that Charlie had yesterday."

The idea of closing Aqueduct would face an enormous uphill battle, both in the industry and at the state Capitol. Ending live racing but keeping a casino at Aqueduct could open up new legal challenges to the 2001 law that permitted VLTs at the track - only if there is live racing there.

Changing that law to raze the track but keep the VLT casino "obviously creates a potentially damaging precedent,'' said Bennett Liebman, head of a racing and wagering think tank at Albany Law School. "If you can have a VLT at a place other than a racetrack, where do you draw the line?''

Aqueduct opened on Sept. 27, 1894. It was re-built and then re-opened in 1959.

Hayward's idea to close Aqueduct for live racing is also predicated on a much larger issue: will NYRA even be in existence after 2007? Its franchise to run racing at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga expires Dec. 31, 2007. A bidding process is scheduled to take some preliminary steps in the next several months, and state officials have insisted it will be a competitive process.