07/22/2005 12:00AM

Decision on NYRA's fate draws near


NEW YORK - For racing fans, the most important day of the Saratoga meeting that begins Wednesday will be Aug. 27, when the Travers, Hopeful, and King's Bishop will all be run. For the future of the track and New York racing, though, the key date comes four days earlier, on a Tuesday when the track will be dark.

Aug. 23 is when the United States attorney's office in Brooklyn will announce whether the New York Racing Association has satisfied the terms of a deferred-prosecution agreement or whether it will proceed to prosecute NYRA for the supposed misdeeds that led to some mutuel clerks cheating on their income taxes in the 1990's.

While NYRA officials believe they have complied with the agreement and deserve to pass muster, they also concede that a decision to prosecute would effectively eliminate whatever chance remains that NYRA's franchise to operate Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga will be extended beyond 2007.

NYRA has been operating for the last 18 months under the scrutiny of a court-appointed monitor whose influence has extended well beyond the "Integrity Hotline" placards that were hammered up all over Saratoga's historic walls last summer. Virtually the entire management team has been replaced in an overhaul both real and cosmetic as the organization has tried to reinvent itself and sever most ties to its recent past.

There is no evidence that NYRA has done anything deserving of prosecution during the term of the federal agreement, but competitors hungrily eyeing the franchise argue otherwise. Last week, a former state prosecutor representing an undisclosed suitor wrote to the U.S. attorney's office urging it to proceed with a franchise-busting prosecution. Donald Kinsella of Albany, who said he represented an industry client "interested in obtaining the franchise," said NYRA's alleged failure to follow state bidding procedures on some contracts "show that little has changed at NYRA and the prosecution should proceed."

Even if NYRA escapes further prosecution, the chance that New York's tracks may soon be operated by someone else are greater now than at any time since NYRA was formed 50 years ago. NYRA itself doesn't particularly want to keep operating under the doomed and outdated business model where the state confiscates its profits and denies it capital. Still, the imminent prospect of massive revenues from the slot machines scheduled to start rolling at Aqueduct next year, and the possibility of adding the machines to Belmont and Saratoga, have suddenly made the franchise more attractive than ever - not only to NYRA and to competing racing conglomerates Churchill Downs and Magna, but also to gaming and casino behemoths. Attractive, too, to some politicians who fantasize about a state takeover.

Joe Palmer once wrote that "a man who would change Saratoga would stir champagne." Now, though, it is appropriate to wonder just how different the nation's oldest racetrack, a shrine to the past, might look in just two or three summers. Skyboxes and skyline restaurants? Giant food courts with miles of Formica? Banks of Fortune slot machines where toga-clad waitresses deliver drinks while the Travers is run somewhere in the background?

At least the next six weeks at Saratoga should look pretty much like they usually do. It will be interesting to see what effect the prerace security barn will have on entries and field size. This anti-drugging initiative unquestionably was a factor in the preponderance of small fields at the Belmont meeting that ends Sunday, as there were fewer out-of-state shippers than usual because of concerns over the inconvenience of the new procedure. Such shippers are the lifeblood of Saratoga, and racing officials are hopeful that horsemen are gradually accepting the security barn.

Bettors may enjoy additional superfectas on the wagering menu, and will benefit from an overdue rule change that will finally spare pick-six players from the vagaries of August storms. Starting Wednesday, when a grass race is transferred to the main track after the bet has closed, it will be considered an "all" race for pick-six purposes rather than transferring scratched selections to the post-time favorite.

No one will benefit from the absence of Mike Lakow, who was recently dismissed as NYRA's racing secretary after 15 years with the company, as part of the management overhaul. Whatever else happened at NYRA over the last decade during Lakow's term as racing secretary, the racing remained strong and in many cases improved thanks to Lakow's innovations and the strong respect he enjoyed on the backstretch. His integrity in a very difficult job was beyond reproach, and any other track would be lucky to have him.