07/27/2006 12:00AM

Empire adds Woodbine as New York bid partner


Woodbine Entertainment Group, the operator of Woodbine Racetrack outside Toronto and a partner with the Ontario provincial government in a slot-machine casino, has joined Empire Racing Associates in a bid to win the franchise held by the New York Racing Association, the two groups announced on Thursday.

Woodbine becomes the second major company to join Empire's bid for the NYRA franchise, which expires on Dec. 31, 2007. Earlier this month, Empire said that Delaware North Companies, an owner and operator of racetracks and casinos, would also be a partner.

The bidding process is being overseen by a state panel, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing, which has set a deadline of Aug. 29 for potential bidders to respond to a request for proposals that it released in June. The request for proposals asks bidders to put a value on the ability to operate Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Race Course for the next 20 years, under a mix of scenarios and changes to New York's complex racing law. The franchise includes the right to operate slot machines at Aqueduct.

The addition of Woodbine adds a deep-pocketed, not-for-profit corporation to Empire's bid. Woodbine, which was the host for the Breeders' Cup in 1996, has used revenues from a lucrative slot-machine casino to double purses and renovate its main property since slots were legalized at the track in 2000. The company also owns and operates 27 offtrack betting parlors in Canada; Mohawk Raceway in Campbellville, Ontario; and an Internet-betting operation called Horseplayer Interactive.

Empire Racing was formed earlier this year with support from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which received an equity stake for its exclusive endorsement. Glen Mathes, a spokesman for Empire, said that Woodbine had also received an equity position but declined to provide a specific percentage. Empire's bylaws prohibit any entity from having a stake greater than 8 percent, and Woodbine's stake is "substantially less than that," Mathes said.

Nick Eaves, a senior vice president at Woodbine, said that the company made its decision to partner with Empire based in part on the endorsement from the New York horsemen's group.

Woodbine officials will assist Empire in developing plans for slot-machine operations at Aqueduct and possibly at Belmont Park, Eaves said. Slots are illegal at Belmont, but the Ad Hoc committee has asked bidders to assume that the machines will be approved under certain scenarios. Eaves said that Woodbine anticipates taking a role in developing plans to offer Internet betting in New York and exploring improvements to the state's offtrack betting system, which is currently run by locally owned corporations.

Of the 16 potential bidders to respond to the request for proposals, only Empire has come forward to identify additional partners. The potential bidders also included Churchill Downs Inc., Magna Entertainment Corp., NYRA, five of New York's offtrack betting corporations, and several real-estate partnerships.