12/01/2006 12:00AM

Bidders compelled to go public

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NEW YORK - Two years into the battle to determine who will run New York racing going forward, something almost entirely absent from the process finally happened last week: Believe it or not, someone actually unveiled some actual, specific proposals.

Empire Racing Associates, perhaps on the defensive after finishing second to Excelsior Racing in the non-binding scoring of the lame-duck Ad Hoc Committee that evaluated the three serious franchise bids, last week released two detailed sections of its franchise proposal, a wide-ranging safety plan and a proposal to protect and preserve Saratoga Race Track.

Empire thus became the first of the three bidding groups to go public with anything but bland generalities, self-congratulation, and disdain for its competitors. While there was nothing revolutionary in its plan, or much that any reasonable bidder would quarrel with, it marked a promising change in the tone and tenor of the franchise process on two counts.

First, it sounded a reminder that beyond the nasty infighting and partisanship surrounding the battle for the franchise, there is actually some real potential for improvement going forward. Once video-lottery terminals, approved by the voters five years ago but repeatedly blocked by the New York Racing Association's political enemies, are finally permitted to start up at Aqueduct, there will be plenty of money to pay for the items on Empire's, and everyone else's, wish lists. Regardless of who gets the franchise, a generation's worth of upgrades and improvements to the state's racing facilities will finally be possible.

Second, Empire's new strategy amounts to trying to win the franchise on the merits of its vision and its plan. This should of course be everyone's strategy, but to date has been widely if cynically considered almost irrelevant.

The Ad Hoc Committee had initially said it would make all three proposals public after making its recommendation, but that plan seems to have changed and to date news organizations have been denied access to the bids. So we have a top-scored bidder, Excelsior, whose plan is a complete mystery and which has yet to articulate a single specific idea beyond not being Empire or NYRA. In NYRA, we have an incumbent that argues its not-for-profit structure is the best model, but which also has not offered even a glimpse of what it would do differently if given a renewal.

Due to the non-binding nature of the Ad Hoc Committee's evaluations, and the imminent change of gubernatorial regimes in Albany, it appears that the franchise is still entirely up for grabs. The outgoing Pataki administration's attempt to replace NYRA before leaving office has failed, and the incoming Spitzer administration can not rubber-stamp the Excelsior recommendation without severe scrutiny, given Spitzer's controversial fund-raising connections to one of the Excelsior principals. Mainstream news outlets are beginning to pay attention to the issue: The Wall Street Journal has reported on the Spitzer-Excelsior ties, and Empire-Excelsior squabbling was the lead item in the New York Daily News's "Rush & Molloy" gossip column this past Wednesday.

The good news there is that it seems increasingly unlikely that the matter can be resolved quietly and privately with a wink, a nod, and a check. The three groups may actually have to present their cases publicly and prevail. Imagine that: The group with the best ideas could actually win.

The other good thing about moving the matter into the courts of public opinion and public-policy analysis is that all three bidders might finally say something about the public itself.

It has been shocking that none of the three groups has even paid lip service to improving conditions or better serving the needs of racing fans and horseplayers. Not one of the groups has addressed issues such as using the cushion of slots revenue to experiment with reductions in takeout, overhauling outdated parimutuel technology for improved service and security, or fixing inconsistent and punitive scratch and refund rules that regulators are too lazy or uninformed to address.

To date, the racing public has gotten little consideration in the franchise process, since it didn't get a vote and it seemed as if everything would be settled in private. Now that the process is clearly beginning rather than ending, with future chapters likely to be written in the light of day, it's time for the bidders not only to make their cases public but also to include the public in their cases.