While bidders drool over N.Y. slots, Gov. Spitzer ponders decision

August 21, 2007 6:09 AM
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Governors are men of power, and how two new ones exert that power in coming weeks and months will profoundly affect American horse racing.

In New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer is now little more than two weeks away from his announced deadline of September 4 in announcing who gets to run the New York Racing Association and its three tracks: Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga Race Course.

There are four contenders, one the incumbent NYRA; two others groups of powerful American entertainment and financial figures; and one all the way from Australia. The latter three all smell the blood of a killing with slots at Belmont, perhaps Aqueduct if it survives the governor’s wishes to tear it down, and possibly, but not likely, the shrine at Saratoga.

There already is a racino across the street from the historic thoroughbred track, at Saratoga’s pretty harness track, and the city and its burghers do not appear to want another at their holy temple of thoroughbred racing. The harness track’s racino, incidentally, is doing very well, unlike the one in populous Yonkers on New York City’s northern border, where play at Yonkers Raceway’s racino has been lethargic compared to the huge expectations predicted for it.

Early in this battle for NYRA, a group called Friends of New York Racing — a fiction as transparent as Saran wrap, since many of its prime movers had little or no connection with New York — entered the fray. It was driven early on by Tim Smith, who had run the National Thoroughbred Racing Association as commissioner for a number of years. Smith has been keeping a low profile recently, but his fiction of a caring citizenry, involving mostly out-of-state investors, was carried forward without him by moneyed people thirsting for more.

Gov. Spitzer has said little, other than expressing a willingness to have the applicants join hands and dollars — something all but one quickly rejected — and floating a trial balloon on shutting down aging Aqueduct and its dead of winter meeting. Naysayers, including the interested applicants for NYRA, tried quickly to puncture that balloon, not because it would be much of a racing loss, but a racino loss. Gov. Spitzer also advanced the notion of having much beleaguered NYRA continue to run the racing, and have the casino pros take over the racinos.

All but NYRA itself have unveiled glossy plans for reviving and resuscitating New York racing. Steve Wynn, a team member of one of the applicants, would turn NYRA into Wynn East, presumably with full Vegas glitz and the promise that what happened there, either at imposing Belmont or grim Aqueduct, would remain there, except for the proceeds.

The other new governor involved in racing’s future — Martin O’Malley of Maryland — made clear last week his wishes to bring slots to Maryland tracks to save the state’s storied racing industry.

With Democrats now in control in Annapolis, Republicans — sensing the turning tide — are scurrying to sustain their bitter opposition to slots, particularly at tracks. They now are talking about possibly accepting them, but raising the tariff on getting them, to $150 million for 3,500 machines and $50 million for 1,000, and throwing the whole process open to bidding, with the company offering the state the best deal the winner. They are not talking about giving Maryland’s racetracks racinos, which the governor wants to do to save them. Frank Stronach and his Magna Entertainment Corporation are growing restless about their track losses, including severe drops at Pimlico and Laurel, and have the threat of moving the hallowed Preakness to one of their many other track venues to shake over the legislature’s head if push comes to shove.

Gov. O’Malley had an internal fire to put out last week, when a fellow Democrat, state comptroller Peter Franchot, a foe of slots, scoffed at an administration report that Marylanders were spending millions at racinos in neighboring West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. O’Malley, showing spirit and savvy, spiked Franchot by saying, "I’ve heard the comptroller say many times that there are hundreds of millions of taxes that go uncollected in Maryland. I look forward to seeing any of his recommendations about that."

We don’t have long to wait for a decision in New York; it obviously will take a little longer in Maryland.