When it comes to politics, New Yorkers easily rank with the best

Dec 31, 2007 4:28 AM

You can’t fault the horsemen in New York for being fed up with the state’s political leadership. For months, they have been looking to Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, and Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno to resolve their differences and find an accommodation that will permit thoroughbred racing to continue at the tracks that until Dec. 31 were operated by the New York Racing Association.

One day, they are told that a deal has been struck to permit NYRA to continue racing at Aqueduct on a temporary basis and the next day they find out that a bureaucratic dispute has left racing in limbo.

At least television performer Howie Mandel insists on a decision: "Deal or No Deal."

The problem, known to everyone for years, revolves around the fact that a franchise to operate Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga that was granted to NYRA 20 years ago was expiring on Dec. 31, 2007.

While some legislative bigwigs in Albany insisted that the franchise should be awarded to another operator, then-Gov. George Pataki formed a committee to accept and evaluate bids for both racing and the creation of a slots emporium at Aqueduct.

The committee whittled the bidders down to reasonable number so that a decision could be reached but newly-elected Gov. Spitzer scrapped the entire process and ordered new bidding.

It was widely-reported that Spitzer had decided to grant NYRA a 30-year franchise provided the current operators agreed to give up titles to the real estate on which the tracks are located.

That prompted another dispute with some state officials insisting the land belonged to the state and not to NYRA. But the issue was never litigated so that question has yet to be resolved.

In early December, the politicos agreed that if an agreement could be reached between NYRA executives and the state, racing would continue under the Oversight Board, created two years ago to monitor NYRA’s finances.

And, on Dec. 28, word out of Albany was that an agreement had been reached whereby the New York Racing Association would continue on a temporary basis.

Steven Newman, who announced when he was appointed to chair the oversight board that he didn’t know the first thing about racing and had not even ever attended a horse race, confirmed that all the lawyers involved had signed off on the deal.

For one day, the continuation of racing was guaranteed.

But, just one day later, another bureaucracy was heard from: the state Racing and Wagering Board said it had not approved the temporary racing license for NYRA.

The reason?

The board said that since the oversight board was now in charge the members felt it did not have a license request from NYRA. After all, they said, the NYRA franchise expired on Dec. 31.

Back to square one.

The only helping sign over the weekend was the revelation that Senator Bruno had relaxed some of his demands from NYRA, fostering some hope that a temporary racing agreement could be forged.

Not optimistic, however, was NYRA Chairman Charles Hayward. He insisted there were still major issues that needed to be resolved before a temporary license could be issued.

Hayward added that he was working with NYRA lawyers and representatives of the oversight board and the attorney general’s office to make revisions to last week’s deal so that the racing permit could be approved.

Probably the best description of the mess came from Charles Wait, a NYRA board member and president of Adirondack Trust in Saratoga Springs.

"This is government at its worst," Wait was quoted as saying, adding that community leaders are concerned about the economic impact the political infighting might cause.