12/23/2007 1:00AM

A down-to-the-wire disgrace

EmailNEW YORK - The holidays can be hard on horseplayers.

The wagering opportunities dwindle down to a precious few. Only nine tracks were open on the 23rd, a rare Sunday when California and New York were both dark. By Christmas Eve it was down to just three: Calder, Fair Grounds, and Philadelphia Park. As for Christmas Day, not a single call to the post. Bah humbug.

But it all gets better quickly on the 26th. It's Opening Day at Santa Anita and Resumption Day at Aqueduct, which reopens after 10 dark days with a $162,694 pick-six carryover that started back on Dec. 14.

Yet the biggest question of the day might not be who's going to win the Malibu, or whom to single at the Big A, but whether Aqueduct will now stay open for as long as it was just closed.

Will there be racing (and a 2008 calendar giveaway) on Jan. 2, or will Sunday's ninth at Aqueduct be the Farewell for a While Purse? The New York Racing Association's franchise to conduct racing expires on Monday, and legislators adjourned for the year earlier this month without resolving a thing. At this writing, track and state officials were struggling to agree on a handshake deal and a temporary extension, still the likeliest outcome if only because a stoppage serves no one's political interests.

Yet even if a shutdown is averted, and even if a renewal for NYRA was the best outcome under the circumstances, it's a disgrace that the situation has gone down to the wire. The state had years to sort this out and a historic opportunity to correct decades of failed policy and build a better system. Instead, the entire process degenerated into years of political mud-wrestling and money-grabbing during which the tracks were bankrupted.

It didn't have to be this way. This being the holiday season and all, let's play "It's Wonderful Life" with what could have happened to New York racing in a parallel, more sensible universe. Slot machines, approved in 2001, would have started spinning at a refurbished Aqueduct in 2003, funding major renovations to Belmont and Saratoga, a merger with some or all of the state's six Off-track Betting Corporations, a permanent takeout reduction, and vast purse increases.

Instead, even if NYRA and racing continue past New Year's Eve, those dreams have evaporated. Whenever the slots do eventually start up, a lot less money will go to racing than was initially envisioned, and the biggest profits will go to whichever well-connected out-of-state companies the politicians reward with the slots operation. The broken OTB system will remain in place with no end in sight, and yet another layer of needless and wasteful bureaucracy will probably be added at the state level. It's a good bet that nothing will be left over to fund programs to improve backstretch living conditions or address equine welfare and retirement issues.

And that's the good scenario. The other one is that everything blows up between now and Monday. The NYRA has a key bankruptcy hearing on Thursday and is not going to back away from its pivotal claim that it owns the tracks in exchange for only a short-term extension. Joe Bruno, the state senate leader who has been singlehandedly blocking an agreement between NYRA and the state, continues to insist on involving failed franchise bidders in future track operations, firing NYRA board members he personally dislikes, turning racetrack functions such as simulcast sales over to bureaucrats, and holding NYRA to unrealistic benchmarks designed to make it fail. Whatever items among these bad ideas are reluctantly but inevitably thrown to Bruno as concessions for his blessing will only be further steps backwards for the industry.

On Dec. 2, 2005, Bruno issued a statement calling for the franchise issue to be settled within six months. "Let's do it sooner rather than later," he said, in order "to maintain the best racing in the country."

More than two years later, "sooner" has come down to less than a week, and all one can root for is no interruption to a troubled status quo.