02/01/2008 12:00AM

Bruno loses backing from an old ally


NEW YORK - It's one thing for the New York racing industry and Democratic politicians to continue blaming state Sen. Joe Bruno for singlehandedly blocking an agreement for racing in the state to continue and move forward. The New York Racing Association has been at war with Bruno for months now, and the Democrats are locked into a bigger struggle against him to wrest control of the senate, the only branch of state government that the Republicans rule, and by a majority that has shrunk to just two seats.

It's an entirely different matter when one of Bruno's and the Republicans' closest allies and supporters ends a 30-year relationship over their current obstinacy on the racing issue. That is exactly what happened Friday when Charles V. Wait resigned from the NYRA board and blasted his longtime ally's recent behavior.

Wait, a NYRA trustee since 1986, was Saratoga Springs's lone representative on the NYRA board, and he is a genuine community pillar, serving on the boards of Skidmore College, the Chamber of Commerce, the Performing Arts Center, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He is the president and chief executive of Adirondack Trust, the town's biggest and oldest bank, as was his father, Newman Wait, the namesake of the Wait Trials run each July before the Saratoga meeting. A bronze plaque in the Saratoga clubhouse commemorates his father's service to racing.

"I have also been a faithful Republican and long time supporter of Joe Bruno," Wait said Friday in an extraordinary statement he issued from his home on North Broadway. "My bank was one of his first customers when he started his company Coradian, a phone switch supplier. I have known Joe for more than thirty years and been an admirer of his . . . I have voted for Senator Bruno in every election.

"Now, however, I find myself at odds with the leadership of my party concerning the future of racing . . . It is also my opinion that there is no plausible reason for the New York State Senate to continue to delay ratification of the memorandum of understanding first proposed by Governor Spitzer. I urge my Senator, Senator Bruno, to use his power and popularity to end the discord and uncertainty."

The memorandum signed by Spitzer and NYRA last September called for NYRA to relinquish its claim to ownership of Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga in exchange for a 30-year franchise extension, and effectively ended a franchise-renewal process during which no superior or even plausible alternative to NYRA had emerged. A few issues remained to be ironed out and debated, but everyone involved in the process considered it a done deal - except Bruno.

The 77-year-old senate majority leader scheduled a series of redundant and pointless public hearings, raised objections to the deal that ranged from the picayune to the bizarre, continued to promote competing bidders who had abandoned their efforts, and demanded that his fellow senators block the agreement. The senate's inaction has forced NYRA to remain in bankruptcy and operate on two short-term extensions, the latest of which expires Feb. 13. You might want to make a backup plan behind celebrating Valentine's Day at Aqueduct, because the situation is so hopelessly deadlocked that it may take a shutdown to break the stalemate.

Wait said he resigned from the NYRA board because "I believe it is important for Saratogians to understand that we are facing a crisis in racing. I know that Senator Bruno is powerful and popular and I know that criticizing him in public may bring retribution. I have no desire for NYRA to become a target."

Wait also included his thoughts on the situation in a "Note to Stockholders" that was part of Adirondack Trust's formal Annual Report for 2007, released this week:

"It is unbelievable that as of the date of this report, the State of New York has been unable to reach an agreement on the thoroughbred racing franchise," he wrote. "It is entirely within the power and ability of Senator Bruno to solve this problem immediately and without further delay."

Perhaps Wait's actions will jar Bruno into realizing that his anti-NYRA position has absolutely no public support and that he is jeopardizing his entire legacy if racing shuts down in New York. Just six months ago, The New York Times described Bruno's appearance for a day at Saratoga as a lovefest, with longtime constituents hailing him "like a pasha floating down the Nile." Today, he would be pelted with catcalls and overripe Hand melons. Locked into a war with Spitzer where he reflexively opposes anything the governor supports, he seems blind to the fact that he alone is blocking the only feasible resolution of the issue.

It's long past time for Bruno to stop fighting this battle. One of the things he has demanded is the power to make more appointments to the NYRA board. Fine - and he should use his first one to reappoint Charles Wait.