09/19/2006 11:00PM

Empire head urges release of NYRA funds


A top official of Empire Racing Associates, one of four groups bidding for the franchise held by the New York Racing Association, has asked the state Non-Profit Racing Association Oversight Board to release funds promised to NYRA in a loan package last year, according to a copy of a letter distributed by Empire on Wednesday.

The letter, which was written by Empire's chief executive, Jeff Perlee, stated that NYRA is in danger of declaring bankruptcy without the release of the funds. NYRA was granted a $30 million loan package from the state legislature last year, but only $11 million of the package has been released so far, according to NYRA officials.

The remaining amount is supposed to come from the state's Lottery Division, and the oversight board has tied the money to the lottery's pending approval of NYRA's contract with MGM Grand to manage a planned casino for Aqueduct. NYRA filed the management contract with the lottery division four months ago, but the lottery has not yet approved the agreement.

Perlee's letter asked the oversight board to seek approval for the release of the funds regardless of the review of the MGM contract. A NYRA bankruptcy filing, the letter said, "would impose great uncertainty on labor, individual New York horsemen and breeders, and thousands of families whose livelihood depends on racing remaining financially viable."

One of Empire's investors is the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents owners and trainers.

Charles Hayward, the chief executive officer of NYRA, reiterated Wednesday that if NYRA files for bankruptcy, the track expects to continue paying purses and running race meets under the protection of the bankruptcy court.

"Bankruptcy would be a last resort, and it would be done for the express purpose of protecting existing purse levels and dates," Hayward said.

The Lottery Division released a statement Wednesday disputing NYRA's contention that the final draft of its agreement was provided to the division four months ago, but rather the second week of August, after NYRA and MGM amended the contract.

"The Division remains committed to the installation of [slot machines] at Aqueduct and will continue to work with NYRA and MGM in resolving the issues created by their proposed changes," the statement said.