08/07/2007 2:38PM

Dark Day #2: Rifkin Speaks!


Dark days were meant for sleeping in or strolling through town, but Dark Day #2 has become the date of the annual Saratoga Institute on Racing and Gaming Law program. It is put together for Albany Law School by Ben Liebmann, the best and most fan-friendly regulator in recent New York racing history, and it has become a closely-watched event because it attracts the major players involved in whatever issue is consuming New York racing.

For the last two years, that issue has obviously been the fate of the NYRA franchise. Last year, the Institute was the site of the spirited clash between NYRA officials and their former ally, Tim Smith, and this morning it was the forum for the first public appearance and remarks by Richard Rifkin, Gov. Eliot Spitzer's point man on awarding the franchise. Those hanging on his words included the leaders of all the state's tracks and OTB's, all the franchise bidding groups, several local tv-station crews, and the law students receiving continuing-education credits for attending.

Please be sure to read Matt Hegarty's actual reporting on the event when it's posted tonight on the drf.com homepage. What follows is merely my personal take on what went on, from the participant-observer perch of a panellist who sat on the stage with Rifkin and two other speakers:

First up was Frank Mauro, from a think tank called the Fiscal Policy Institute, who retraced the history of the NYRA franchise and particularly the 1985 franchise renewal that is part of the controversy over whether NYRA or the state owns the land under Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. It's the kind of arcane legal/legislative issue that could keep 100 lawyers on each side arguing for decades. The difficulty of the issue, and the seeming 50-50 chance the state could lose its claim through the courts, is one of the reasons that Spitzer is widely expected to give NYRA some kind of franchise award or extension in exchange for its dropping its claim to the land.

Next came yours truly, speaking extemporaneously from a list of bulleted points I wanted to make:
*Franchise renewals have tradionally been decided in the dead of night behind closed doors and three groups of people who need protection always seem to get left out of the cynically carved-up deals: the horses, the people who take care of them, and the betting public.
*Every time there's a change of residency in the Governor's mansion, there's a huge learning curve for the new administration, which begins floating failed ideas like combining Aqueduct and Belmont into one supertrack or getting a different outfit to run each of the tracks.
*Any discussion of fixing New York racing has to start with a serious discussion of dismantling the hideously wasteful OTB system of six redundant companies performing a single function best handled by whoever is operating the tracks.
*New York racing should be regarded as a treasured cultural asset like its parks and museums, not as an opportunity for personal gain by well-connected real-estate developers and casino companies.

The third speaker was Jack Knowlton, one of Funny Cide's owners and a member of the Pataki-appointed Ad Hoc Committee that examined franchise bids and issued recommendations last year before Spitzer's election returned everything to square one. Knowlton talked about the Ad Hoc Committee's work and also urged the new governor to do what is best for the sport and the public rather than simply selling to the highest bidder.

Rifkin, who serves as Spitzer's special counsel, got the last words today for his first public statements since Spitzer put him in charge of the franchise issue shortly after taking office in January. A genial and world-weary attorney, Rifkin said repeatedly that Spitzer has made no decisions yet but is still on target for making a major announcement Sept. 4, the day after Saratoga closes. Rifkin said the announcement would be in the form of a recommendation to legislative leaders, based on the final franchise bids that, coincidentally, were due today. He said that those bids would be posted on the New York State Racing and Wagering Board's website as soon as possible.

The most encouraging thing Rifkin said was his acknowledgment that the existing OTB system is flawed and that he didn't think there was much disagreement on that point. Spitzer's most recent predecessors, both Democrat Mario Cuomo and Republican Pataki, both threw their hands up on the issue, saying the system was too politically-entrenched to be changed.

Rifkin also said that the idea of splitting the franchise, where one entity would run the racing and another the slots operation, was a possibility under discussion but not a final plan, saying there are both advantages and disadvantages to that approach.

--There's still half a dark day to be enjoyed. So I'll be back much later tonight with some thoughts on Monday's whopping $335 (no missing zeroes) pick six, Nobiz Like Shobiz's victory in the Hall of Fame Stakes, and the results of a third restaurant foray.