MEC Has Plans--With or Without NYRA

Magna Entertainment Corp. is still willing to partner with the New York Racing Association, but it is also pursuing its own move into the New York marketplace in case NYRA isn't serious about a merger, MEC president Jim McAlpine said.

In comments to The Blood-Horse, McAlpine said Aug. 3 MEC hopes New York officials jump-start the franchise renewal process to determine who gets control of Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga. NYRA's franchise expires in 2007, but the process for renewing it is set to begin sometime next year.

McAlpine said, given NYRA's legal and financial troubles, the process should begin possibly as early as this year. "I would welcome the process starting sooner than later," McAlpine said after he spoke at a racing conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., sponsored by the Albany Law School.

McAlpine's comments came as the Republican-led state Senate was planning a major hearing Aug. 10 to consider various legislative ideas involving the racing industry. A host of industry officials and state officials, including Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, are among those invited to speak at the Senate Racing Committee session that will be headed by Republican Sen. William Larkin.

A state budget is being formulated, and on the table is not only what to do about getting video lottery terminals operating at Aqueduct, but whether to accept Gov. George Pataki's proposal to dramatically change the way in which the racing industry is regulated in New York.

McAlpine said MEC's interest is as strong as ever in the lucrative New York market, with or without NYRA's assistance. NYRA and MEC, two entities that have had their troubles working together over the years, have held discussions about joining forces in New York. Some state officials have encouraged the talks, but they privately said they don't believe NYRA has been serious about it. The NYRA board earlier this year rejected any idea of merging operations.

McAlpine said the talks with NYRA have been "sporadic," and that so far "nothing has come out of it."

"We'd be delighted to partner with NYRA in the business of horse racing," he said. "The status quo isn't acceptable--allowing the NYRA business to continue to be run the way it has been run."

McAlpine said his lobbying team, which includes former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and the son of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, is working "to make sure people understand the status quo isn't good enough, and that there are alternatives, and we would hold ourselves out as one of those alternatives."

MEC has explored the New York market for years. But McAlpine said the company, while looking at real opportunities with NYRA's franchise coming up for renewal, knows things take time in the state. "This is a long process, and we're very patient in terms of keeping our eyes on what's going on," he said.

McAlpine said MEC would like "harmonious" relations with NYRA. When asked if NYRA has taken MEC seriously in its discussions in recent months, he said: "I hope they take us seriously."

NYRA supporters in New York have long dismissed MEC, in part, because they believe a for-profit company is the wrong approach to take for NYRA-operated tracks. McAlpine said the heavy-handed system of government regulation in New York doesn't help the industry, but rather keeps it from growing.

He said there is "no better model today" than the for-profit company for running racing in New York.

In a panel discussion on rebates, McAlpine said state laws prohibiting MEC from offering rebates to customers should be lifted across the country. He also called for the legalization of account wagering in all states. "We think rebaters are here to stay," he said.