05/31/2007 11:00PM

As deadline nears, Spitzer mum on franchise


State legislators who intend to play a role in determining the future of racing at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga following the year-end expiration of the New York Racing Association's franchise say they have yet to receive any recommendations from Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

The state legislature is set to adjourn on June 21, and it is unclear what negotiations, if any, are taking place in the governor's office regarding the franchise. Aside from receiving second-hand reports about a plan to separate the franchise's assets, legislators said that they have received no guidance from Spitzer and that they will not move forward on any plan until he has weighed in.

Jim Tedisco, the minority leader of the Assembly whose district includes the racetrack site of Saratoga Springs, said that it was "absolutely" unrealistic to expect a franchise deal before the legislature adjourned, citing the short time left in the session and unresolved legal issues regarding NYRA's claim that it owns the racetracks, a position that is challenged by the state.

"It's just not feasible," Tedisco said on Thursday. "First, the governor has to send his recommendations over to us, and I don't know if you know much about the New York state legislature, but we're not sprinters here. We're not even milers. We're marathoners. We get something, we hold it, we hold it, we hold it, we discuss it, we beat it to death, and then we're not even sure if we can accomplish something then."

Four groups - Capital Play Inc., Empire Racing, Excelsior Racing Associates, and NYRA - have expressed interest in having the franchise, which includes the right to operate Aqueduct, Belmont, Saratoga, and a yet-to-be-built casino at Aqueduct. In April, a panel appointed by Spitzer heard presentations from the groups, and the panel was expected to issue recommendations by mid-May. It is unclear if the panel has issued any recommendations. Spitzer's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week.

Gary Pretlow, an assemblyman who participated in the hearings, said that he has had no subsequent discussions with panel members. Like Tedisco, who also sat in on the hearings, Pretlow said that the legislature would not move on any of the issues until hearing the governor's plan. Accordingly, Pretlow said that the most plausible short-term scenario is for NYRA to receive an extension of its franchise.

"If the governor comes to a conclusion that is acceptable to the legislature, we could put something together by the end of the year and we could come back into special session to vote on it," Pretlow said. "But my real concern is that there's no lead time. If there's a new franchise holder, they need time to be in there to see how it all works. We'd need to do a deal tomorrow for that to happen."

In the absence of any formal recommendations, bidders have been squabbling as they attempt to draw attention to the plans that they presented at the hearings. On Thursday, Empire released a letter it sent to the panel's chairman, Richard Rifkin, accusing NYRA and another bidding group, Excelsior Racing Associates, of "collusion" by allegedly meeting to discuss a possible partnership that would split the casino and racing operations.

Katie Burke, a spokeswoman for Excelsior, said that the allegations "are entirely false."

"The alleged meeting did not take place, nor did any of the conversations referenced in the letter to Mr. Rifkin," Burke said.

Charles Hayward, NYRA's chief executive, called the alleged meeting "a complete fabrication."

During the past weeks, reports have circulated that Spitzer has discussed a plan to break up the franchise and close Aqueduct, a proposal that also would entail extensive renovations to Belmont to make the racetrack suitable for winter racing. Hayward said that he did not know where the rumor originated and that NYRA officials did not support the plan.

Tedisco said that during a meeting with Spitzer last week, Spitzer mentioned the plan, but said that he was not "advocating or supporting it, only that the discussions were taking place." The legislature, Tedisco said, would have a hard time passing any such plan.

"I think it's a terrible idea," Tedisco said.

Pretlow called the plan "crazy."