10/24/2001 11:00PM

Aqueduct makeover for slots


NEW YORK - The New York Racing Association will make significant renovations to Aqueduct in order to house thousands of video-lottery machines at the racetrack next year, NYRA officials said Thursday.

Although even basic details have yet to be worked out, NYRA officials are certain that an area of the track will be set aside for VLT players. VLTs are nearly identical to slot machines - including the bells and whistles.

"We're not going to stick them in the hallway when you walk in the door," said NYRA chairman Barry Schwartz. "We have to walk the facility and find a place that's suitable and then build an environment to house them."

The devices were approved late Wednesday night by the New York State legislature as part of a broad expansion of gambling. In addition to legalizing VLTs at five racetracks - including Finger Lakes in upstate New York - the measure will potentially allow for the opening of six new Native American casinos and the inclusion of New York in the multistate lottery game Powerball.

Among the gambling measures, Powerball will likely be the first to come on line, perhaps within the next six weeks. Establishing new casinos will take much longer, legislative officials said, at least one year down the road.

Aqueduct and other racetracks will need to negotiate with the New York Department of the Lottery in order to establish their allotment of machines and the amount of money they will be able to retain. Those negotiations have not yet started, but NYRA officials said they expected to talk to lottery officials next week, following the Breeders' Cup on Saturday.

One lobbyist said he expected the process to take at least three to six months. Schwartz, however, would not put a timetable on when the VLTs would be ready.

"It's just so early, and this happened so suddenly," Schwartz said. "I do know that Terry [Meyocks, president of NYRA] and I are planning to fly up to Woodbine and to West Virginia to see how these other places have done it. That's one of the first steps."

Under the measure that passed Wednesday night, racetracks will be able to retain at least 12 percent of the net win of the machines, and up to 25 percent, depending on the negotiations with the lottery department. In that range, revenue estimates to NYRA would be anywhere from $25 million to $55 million, although the estimates could vary widely depending on how the VLTs are received.

NYRA will need to borrow money from the Capital Investment Fund, a state agency funded by NYRA's annual profits, in order to pay for the renovations. But with 60 percent of the revenues from the VLTs in the first year and 50 percent in the succeeding years, NYRA officials say they are confident they will be able to find the money for the Aqueduct renovations.