New York State of Mess

New York State of Mess
Photo: Lee Thomas
Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief

If you’re a little confused about the future of racing in New York, join the club. If you’re not confused, you’re probably not thinking clearly.

It’s been 5½ years since the New York legislature approved video lottery terminals at New York racetracks, including Aqueduct. But while the machines have been humming away at places like Finger Lakes, Batavia Downs, and Yonkers Raceway, Aqueduct’s VLT parlor is still on hold.

Politics can be blamed for the chokehold the state has had on the New York Racing Association, which has a longstanding deal with MGM Mirage, the Nevada casino company, to operate the gambling machines at Aqueduct, located in Queens.

The MGM Mirage deal extends beyond Dec. 31, 2007, when NYRA’s franchise to operate Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga is set to expire. Whoever is awarded the franchise will be expected to honor the agreement with MGM Mirage.

Who that franchise operator will be is becoming more curious by the minute. Last November, following a series of public hearings and a formal request for proposal process, Excelsior Racing Associates, a group affiliated with New York Yankees owner and Florida horseman George Steinbrenner, was selected by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing to get the franchise.

That committee’s recommendation was non-binding, so when former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was sworn in as governor in January, it was widely expected a new selection process would begin. Spitzer, a Democrat, replaced Republican Gov. George Pataki.

Spitzer didn’t wait long to throw out the work of the committee and establish a new procedure to assess franchise bids. On Feb. 28, the new governor named his own special counsel, Richard Rifkin, to head a panel that will also have representation from the state’s racing board, the Empire State Development Corp., and Spitzer’s budget division. Two new bidders, including a group led by casino magnate Steve Wynn, will join the four other entities that participated in the RFP process during Pataki’s term. One of those four is NYRA.

The relationship between Spitzer and the racing industry isn’t an easy one to read. It was Spitzer’s scathing report while attorney general that put NYRA in hot water in 2003. Among other things, the 64-page report said NYRA for years had been, "at best, indifferent to corruption." Singled out were abuses by mutuel clerks in their handling of money and NYRA management’s indifference to those abuses. NYRA was subjected to a federal indictment and was forced to have a court-ordered monitor help oversee its operations. The indictment was eventually dropped.

Shortly after the report was released in 2003, Spitzer himself came under attack from Kentucky trainer John Ward Jr., who said that "politics is trying to cannibalize racing in the state of New York." A few days later, after he read Ward’s remarks, Spitzer called the trainer to deny that the critical report had anything to do with politics. "He obviously is very sensitive to any kind of criticism," Ward said at the time.

Three years later, when he was running for governor, Spitzer traveled to the Bluegrass State for a fund-raiser thrown by Kentucky owner/breeder Tracy Farmer, who said he thinks Spitzer as governor would "do the right thing for the industry in New York."

But what is the right thing? NYRA, an also-ran when the Pataki committee looked at the franchise applicants, has clearly reformed itself under the management of Charlie Hayward, who replaced Terry Meyocks as president in the wake of the 2003 report. In addition, NYRA’s claim to ownership of racetrack property could be tied up in court well beyond the time the franchise is to be awarded.

As anyone knows, however, there are no sure things in racing.

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