07/20/2007 12:00AM

Does all this sound familiar?


NEW YORK - Dear Editor,

How about if I take a half-day and catch that final twilight card out at Belmont and you can just rerun last year's pre-Saratoga column?

You remember, the one that began, "The biggest race at Saratoga this year is neither the Whitney nor the Travers, but the one to see who's going to be running this place two summers from now."

That's still the case, and you can just change "two summers from now" to "next summer" and it still fits. After all, here we are a year later and the New York Racing Association's franchise still expires on Dec. 31, 2007, and absolutely nothing has been formally decided.

Granted, a few things have changed. Instead of having George Pataki in the governor's mansion, trying to steer the franchise to his upstate-businessman cronies, we now have Eliot Spitzer as the new tenant, trying to steer the racino and Aqueduct portions of the operation to his real estate development cronies. But you don't need to change so much as a comma in the sentence that reads, "While every study group and blue-ribbon panel has identified an overhaul of the 35-year-old OTB system as a top priority, the OTBs are so politically entrenched and powerful that fundamental change is unlikely."

We should, however, update the odds lines on the bidders. I initially installed NYRA as the 2-1 favorite to be running the place in 2008, but now it's looking more like 2-5. Spitzer has told the other bidders in private meetings that he's leaning toward leaving the racing in NYRA's hands, not a surprise given that no one else has been remotely persuasive that they would do things any differently or better.

Meanwhile, the competition has been sputtering. Empire Racing's prospects have gone into free fall since losing the endorsement of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association last month. Excelsior Racing lost a lot of its zip when the Steinbrenner family and New York Yankees organization dropped out of the group this spring, and Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas mogul, proved a scary rather than reassuring replacement at public hearings in April. Capital Play, the Australian bookmakers, signed up the Mohegan Sun casino operators as partners earlier this month but still look like the 99-1 shot they were a year ago.

Spitzer announced Friday morning that he wants everyone to submit final updated bids and that he will make a recommendation to the legislature by Sept. 4. This augurs well for the incumbent since the Saratoga meet ends Sept. 3 and, especially with spectacular purse increases in effect, there is every reason to think this is going to be a feel-good meeting of world-class racing and strong business. So unless the NYRA trustees are reliably photographed beating up little old ladies on Union Avenue over the next six weeks, it seems unlikely that Spitzer will call for a new track operator the day after Saratoga closes.

Just as a few 2-5 shots are certain to lose at the Spa over the next six weeks, everything could still go haywire. The smart money, though, says to go ahead and take the short price on NYRA getting the racing franchise in a shotgun marriage with a casino operator and land developer, most likely the Excelsior group that still includes Spitzer's friend and benefactor Richard Fields.

The Friday announcement from Spitzer's office further hinted at a bifurcated franchise by specifically mentioning that the governor has "encouraged" the bidders to discuss partnerships and that "Each of the four may discuss with any of the others a joint venture operation." This seemed like a direct slap at Empire, which last month somewhat desperately called for NYRA and Exclelsior to be disqualified from the bidding process for allegedly having had secret meetings (which both groups deny) to discuss precisely such an arrangement. So given that Capital Play already has its casino partner in Mohegan Sun, and that NYRA and Excelsior would sooner drink hemlock than work with Empire, a cold NYRA-Excelsior quinella might still be an overlay if you can get $3.60.

Okay, on second thought I suppose a simple rerun of last year's column won't entirely work. But I think we can still salvage the last paragraph:

"There are bound to be dozens of twists and turns and realignments before anything substantive actually happens. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the drama to date is that no bidder has publicly articulated a single new idea, much less a grand vision, for the future of the game in New York. There are no proposals being debated, just NYRA saying it's doing a better job than it used to and everyone else saying they're not NYRA. Perhaps after the bid deadline, there will actually be some public discussion of what, besides putting some money into their own pockets, the various bidders actually have in mind for New York racing."