01/30/2002 1:00AM

Debate over Saratoga VLT's

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Proponents and critics of gambling in Saratoga Springs gathered Tuesday night at the City Center to debate a proposal to legalize video lottery machines at a harness track in the city.

The hearing was called to gauge local opinion on allowing video lottery terminals at Saratoga Equine Sports Center. The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors, which must ultimately approve the measure, has already said that it supports video lottery machines at the track.

The county board is scheduled to vote on the measure on Feb. 13. Supporters of VLT's say the machines will bring stability to the harness track, which has struggled financially over the past decade. Opponents range from anti-gambling groups to civic leaders who argue the machines will not benefit the local economy.

One opponent is the New York Racing Association, whose chairman, Barry K. Schwartz, sent a letter to the county board this week sharply criticizing the impact the machines would have on NYRA's 36-day Saratoga meet and the city's reputation as an "upstate center for the arts," according to the letter.

"Don't they realize what they are getting themselves into?" Schwartz said on Wednesday from his Manhattan office. "I'm not the decision-maker up there, but I really think it would be disaster."

Under the legislation passed last year, VLT's were legalized at five tracks - including NYRA's Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. NYRA declined to ask for VLT's at Saratoga or Belmont Park because of "community concerns," Schwartz said.

The legislation also allowed three counties - Saratoga, Erie, and Genessee - to approve VLT's at local racetracks. Erie and Genessee have already approved the machines.