Big names quit NYRA race bidder

Oct 16, 2007 5:15 AM

The way the big names in racing were running for the exits last week you have to think that Empire Racing had developed a bad case of body odor.

Empire Racing is one of the four groups seeking to control racing at New York’s three main thoroughbred tracks for the next 30 years. The bidder had attracted such big names as Churchill Downs Inc. (CHDN), Magna Entertainment Corp. (MECA) and the grand dame of Saratoga racing, Marylou Whitney.

All three have called it quits, saying, in effect, that Empire Racing has evolved into an entity with which they no longer feel comfortable being associated. What was it famed wit Groucho Marx use to say: I don’t want to be associated with any group that would have me as a member?

Oddly, a spokesman for Empire Racing said that without the partnerships that have now been severed his group would have a better chance at getting the franchise. He pointed out that Gov. Eliot Spitzer had expressed antitrust concerns with the involvements of Churchill Downs and Magna Entertainment.

However, it was generally believed that Empire Racing was in talks with the Australian company, Capital Play, to make a joint bid for the franchise. Capital Play, in partnership with Mohegan Sun, was one of the three bidders rejected by Spitzer in favor of the New York Racing Association, current franchise holder.

That proposal has run afoul of the New York legislature whose responsibility it is to pass on Spitzer’s recommendation.

At a hearing before the Senate Racing Committee last week, NYRA officials took their lumps.

Chairman William Larkin, a consistent anti-NYRA voice in the Senate, criticized the group, saying they resented NYRA’s efforts to force a quick decision by suggesting that racing could stop at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga if the franchise issue isn’t settled by Dec. 31.

Charles Hayward, NYRA president, warned that a bankruptcy judge presiding over NYRA’s fiscal problems might not agree that the state can continue racing beyond Dec. 31 through an oversight panel.

He warned against a "slippery slope with a bad outcome that NYRA and the legislature might not control."

Hanging over the entire issue is ownership of the real estate on which the tracks are located. Since both NYRA and state officials claim ownership rights, the matter might end up in another court fight, thus possibly terminating racing until a legal judgment is obtained.