Harder than it should be

It was back to square one Wednesday for the future of New York racing when Governor Eliot Spitzer announced the creation of a new panel that will evaluate the groups interested in taking over the franchise to operate Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga and a slots operation at Aqueduct and, possibly, Belmont. That probably means that the previous work done by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing, a group that came to be under Governor George Pataki and recommended that Excelsior Racing Associates be awarded the franchise, has been rendered meaningless. Meanwhile, the New York Racing Association continues to press its claims that it is the rightful owner of the land where the three racetracks sit and not the state. Should NYRA win that fight, the picture will take another dramatic turn.

The thing is a mess, but it doesn't have to be. The first step toward a solution is to stop pretending that any of this has anything to do with horse racing. It's all about slot machines because slots mean money, and lots of it. Horse racing in New York, from a financial standpoint, has proven to be a big loser, which is the reason why NYRA is bankrupt. If slots weren't part of the equation, it's likely that NYRA would be the only group interested in the franchise.

So why not deal with the slots operation and the racetrack as two separate entities?

Among the three groups that have been vying to operate the franchise, there's little doubt that NYRA is the most qualified to run the racing end of it. NYRA is a racing organization and not a gaming company. Its Board of Trustees is made up of some of the most influential people in the sport, people who are involved in racing because they love the sport. Its managers are also racing people who understand the sport and want to entrench NYRA as the best racing circuit in the country. Horse racing will still matter if NYRA remains part of the equation.

That may not be the case should some other group take over the franchise. Whenever horse racing and slot machines have come together, the result is always the same - the sport is pushed to the background and treated like the proverbial red-headed step child by racino operators who understand where the real money is to be made. That's why you rarely find betting windows, racing signage or even a monitor showing the races inside the slot rooms at racetracks. Racing isn't promoted or marketed or exposed to slots players. Growing the sport is not a priority.

Perhaps Excelsior would be different. Then again, one of its primary movers and shakers is Richard Fields, a guy who comes from the casino business.

NYRA would be more than happy to come out this running just the racing end of the business. As for the casino, an outside operator isn't necessary. In New York, racetrack slots are run under the auspices of the state lottery commission. Why can't the lottery commission not only oversee the slots at Aqueduct and, possibly, Belmont, but run the entire show?

That's the way it is done in Ontario, which has done a better job than anyone else when it comes to the marriage of slots and horse racing. The Woodbine Entertainment Group, which runs racing at Woodbine and Mohawk, has virtually nothing to do with the on-track slots operations. It is run by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, while the racing people run the racing end of the business. It has been a win-win relationship for everyone involved. The province is making a fortune from the slot machine business and racetrack owners and the horsemen are doing fine, too. Ten percent of the slots profits go to purses and another 10 percent goes to Woodbine Entertainment.

A similar setup would work just as well in New York and it would probably make everyone happy. If nothing else, it would create a way around the land ownership issue, something that quite possibly could tie the franchise issue up in court for years. If given the carrot of running racing, NYRA would surely be open to an amicable resolution of the land issue. And even should only 6 or 7 percent of the slot pie to go toward purses, New York horses would be racing for the richest pots in North America. And with its slots cut, NYRA could solve its financial woes overnight.

Spitzer has portrayed himself as a different kind of politician, someone who cares more about doing the right thing than currying favor with special interests or maintaining a broken system in which cronyism and political favors are behind every decision. He should treat the future of horse racing in New York no differently, which means throwing out all the old rules that dictated the franchise would go to whatever group had the best political connections and did the best job spreading money around Albany. In fact, because of Spitzer's ties to Fields (Spitzer has traveled on Fields's corporate jet on several occasions and, under fire, was forced to reimburse Fields for after it was determined he underpaid for the flights), he is risking coming across as a hypocrite should he hand the New York franchise over to the casino developer's groups.

His panel needs to think outside the box and consider scenarios that will benefit not just the state and whomever is set to get rich running these casinos but also the struggling sport of horse racing in New York. It needs to separate the casino from the racetracks, a move that will make the picture a lot more clear. NYRA is far from perfect, but it represents the chance for horse racing to flourish in New York.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.