Gov. George Pataki, reportedly favors VLTs for Aqueduct.

Gov. George Pataki, reportedly favors VLTs for Aqueduct.

Associated Press

Sources: Aqueduct VLT Experiment in the Works

New York Gov. George Pataki is quietly floating a plan to permit video lottery terminals only at Aqueduct racetrack on an experimental basis, sources at the state capital said.

The longshot proposal, which has come up in recent discussions between Pataki and legislative leaders, would allow VLTs at the New York Racing Association track on an experimental basis for an unknown period. It would not permit the devices, as the industry has sought, at the rest of the state's tracks.

The state's Standardbred industry has been the driving force for VLTs for several years, but the Pataki plan, sources said, ignores it. "The harness industry is going to go mad over this one," said one government official with knowledge of the plan.

Later Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver added Yonkers Raceway to the negotiating table as sites where VLTs could be located on an experimental basis. Lawmakers said Silver wanted the Standardbred track included if Aqueduct gets the devices.

"So do I," said Senator Nicholas Spano, a Westchester County Republican who represents Yonkers. "We have to include them," he said of the harness track.

Pataki's plan is one of several gambling-related proposals floating around Albany as Pataki and legislative leaders this week try to put the finishing touches on a supplemental package of funding for the state's 2001 budget. A proposal first made several years ago by Pataki to permit the state to join with others in a Powerball lottery game has gained enough steam in recent days that even legislators are now resigned to the plan being enacted.

Moreover, there are still plans being pushed to permit an Indian tribe to open up to three casinos in western New York, as well as a push by Assembly Democrats to encourage a casino in the Catskill Mountains near Monticello Raceway.

For the first time, all facets of the racing industry in New York came together this year to push the VLT proposal. NYRA's board of trustees went on record supporting the VLTs at its tracks, with the exception of Saratoga.

The idea of permitting VLTs at just Aqueduct presents a host of political obstacles. For starters, Assembly Democratic leaders have long vowed to block any casino-like gambling within the boundaries of New York City. And upstate lawmakers insist the devices be located at harness tracks, several of which are on their last financial legs.

A leading lobbyist on the issue said he gives the overall VLT proposal a one-in-10 chance of passage this year.

Joseph Conway, a spokesman for Pataki, would not comment on any specific plan for Aqueduct. "VLTs are one of the issues that are currently being discussed," he said. "We're keeping an open mind on them."

NYRA chairman Barry Schwartz was not immediately available for comment Wednesday. But the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents 5,000 owners and trainers, supported the Aqueduct plan.

"We wanted Aqueduct and Belmont, but we have to take what we can get," Richard Bomze said. "They will then see how successful they are, and we'll get more."

Bomze said his group is not behind any effort to introduce the VLTs at only Aqueduct, but that the New York THA would welcome the plan. "VLTs will saving racing in this state," Bomze said. "You never get 100% of what you want, and if we have to take half a loaf, it's better than no loaf."

Bomze said horsemen still insist that any VLT program be designed so purses are boosted dramatically to compete with other racetracks. When asked about the exclusion of the harness industry in the proposal, he said: "I feel sorry for those guys, but right now, I'm more worried about the (Thoroughbred) horsemen."