08/17/2006 11:00PM

Empire Racing says Hello, Marylou


Et tu, Marylou?

Such was the reaction in some quarters of Saratoga when the town's beloved mascot, Marylou Whitney, added her name to the growing list of formidable entities gathering under the Empire Racing Associates banner to wrest control of the sport from the New York Racing Association. Mrs. Whitney, who seems to have been the "honorary chairperson" of a majority of the charitable galas held in Saratoga Springs since the town was incorporated in 1826, has accepted that same title for Empire, along with a small equity stake. It was a blue-chip week for Empire, which announced the same day that Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment had joined their alliance, which already included Delaware North, Scientific Games, and Woodbine Entertainment Group.

The Whitney announcement was a largely symbolic but viscerally powerful one here in the foothills of the Adirondacks. Beyond her charitable deeds, she has a mythic presence in Saratoga, where the townfolk actually gather to watch her arrive in a coach and wave to them when she arrives at her annual ball at the Canfield Casino. Her endorsement of Empire is as if the federal government were thinking of privatizing Yosemite Park, and Smokey the Bear deserted the National Park Service for a consortium of powerful logging and construction companies.

This is not to suggest Empire's agenda includes paving over Saratoga and hacking up the historic saddling trees for kindling. Magna's Frank Stronach threw a scare of this sort into the locals when he blurted out something about converting Saratoga into a "year-round gambling and entertainment destination" at a public hearing a few months ago. Mrs. Whitney's presence on Empire's letterhead seems designed in part to allay such fears.

It's also possible that Mrs. Whitney is reacting the way Smokey would if the incumbent park rangers had been messing with his cave. NYRA cut her historic but currently modest racing stable's stall allotment from 22 to 15 this summer, not an unwarranted gesture for an outfit that had made only six starts in New York while making nine at Suffolk Downs during the Belmont meeting. Mrs. Whitney's husband, John Hendrickson, complained bitterly about the move on a local radio show on the eve of the meeting.

You could say that NYRA would have been justified cutting her stalls even further given the numbers, but there's also something to be said for not poking at bears with sticks. The payback can be unpleasant, as NYRA is learning with some other Empire supporters. Churchill Downs and Magna were infuriated when NYRA pulled out of the Triple Crown television partnership to cut its own deal with ABC and ESPN. Scientific Games, which used to do business as Autotote, was replaced by United Tote as NYRA's parimutuel vendor.

So Empire doesn't want to burn Saratoga to the ground and Mrs. Whitney thinks they're okay, but this remains about all we know about its plans. A week ago, perhaps in response to criticism that the group had not articulated any positions beyond "We're not NYRA," Empire published a glossy brochure inserted in local newspapers, headlined with bland slogans such as "The Future of New York Racing is Here," "Looking Out For Other People's Interests," and "Good Business Is Good For Racing." And not a single detail of what it actually plans to do.

In that respect, Empire's advertisements are similar to those being run by Eliot Spitzer, the Democrat who is still 50 points ahead in the polls to become the state's next governor and thus the person who will actually make the decision on the racing franchise. Spitzer's current round of ads consists of nothing but pictures of smiling schoolchildren, followed by the words "Spitzer for Governor" on a chalkboard. No platform, no promises, no plans. The sole intent seems to be to reassure citizens that the fearsome prosecutor does not in fact eat small children for breakfast.

Of course, it may be premature to ask Empire for more specificity until next month. Empire, NYRA, and perhaps the strangely silent Excelsior partnership are expected to submit formal bids for the franchise by Aug. 29. A month later, a Republican-controlled panel will recommend a new franchisee, but any choice will at least linger, if not wither, until a new legislature and new governor return to Albany next year. That likely scenario was reinforced this past week when state comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat and Spitzer ally, criticized the bidding process for not sufficiently emphasizing the integrity reforms he has called for and which he has praised NYRA for implementing. The subtext of his remarks was that nothing would be decided about the franchise until the Democrats take over the governor's mansion in 2007.

Ironically, Spitzer and Hevesi were NYRA's worst nightmares a year ago when both were investigating and castigating the tracks' operations. Both now seem relatively pleased with NYRA's performance and at least philosophically in favor of its nonprofit model.

Now there's a longshot Saratoga exacta for you: NYRA drawing praise from reformist Democrats and daggers from the Whitneys.