07/14/2006 12:00AM

Casino bigs key in NYRA deal

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Reality imitates art more often than we care to admit. So when 16 different groups announced their interest in bidding on a pot of gold known as the franchise of the New York Racing Association, it was a like movie plot that I had seen before.

The NYRA franchise is so coveted because of the future opportunity to operate thousands of slot machines at Aqueduct Racetrack, and possibly Belmont Park and Saratoga in coming years. And oh, by the way, the NYRA arguably offers the best horse racing product in the world.

With 16 different suitors salivating over the franchise, the movie that comes to mind is the 1963 comedic classic "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

For those of you too young to remember "Mad World," it is a comedy centered on four groups of people in a hilarious chase to find $350,000 in cash. In his dying breath, Smiler Grogan, played by Jimmy Durante, told the folks the money was buried under "the big W."

In the movie, the big W turns out to be four criss-crossing palm trees. In the real-life quest for the New York franchise, the big W is in actuality "the Big A," as in Aqueduct slots.

"Mad World" starred some of the best and funniest performers of its era - Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, and Jonathan Winters. However, Spencer Tracy, who played a cynical sheriff, stole the movie, and nearly the $350,000.

A 1963 New York Times review called Tracy's character "sardonic about this wholesale display of human greed and is able to move from this position into ultimate command of the hoard when the parties converge upon [the money], and he is there to take it away."

Between now and Aug. 29, when the bids must be submitted to the New York Ad Hoc Committee for the Future of Racing, there will be more wheeling, dealing, and maneuvering to make for a best-selling book.

Many of the power brokers involved are the best in the business: Tom Meeker of Churchill Downs, Frank Stronach of Magna Entertainment, and George Steinbrenner with Excelsior Racing, to name a few. There is an alphabet soup of organizations including TVG, NYRA, NYOTB, and WNY Gaming.

But if I were a betting man, two people who would fit the Spencer Tracy role to a "T" are right here in Las Vegas, Terry Lanni with MGM Grand and Steve Wynn with LRW Development.

When it comes to closing a gaming deal at the highest level, no one plays his cards better than Lanni or Wynn. Plus I would relish the chance to see a successful casino executive impart some wisdom to the racing industry.

By the way, the decision of who gets the New York franchise by The Ad Hoc Committee is non-binding on the New York State Legislature. Interesting. The "Mad World" is just beginning.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of "Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies."