09/06/2007 11:00PM

In the end, the right horse won

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NEW YORK - Sometime in the year 2037 or so, if we're not all too busy playing the pick 14 on simulcasts from Mars, someone will realize that the New York Racing Association's franchise is expiring again. This time, the state of New York will unquestionably own Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, and there could be a very different outcome than the one announced last Tuesday, when Gov. Eliot Spitzer recommended that the NYRA be granted a 30-year franchise extension to operate the tracks.

It would be comforting to view this apparent resolution of the current franchise crisis as an example of good government at its best, to think that the case was won on its merits, and to believe that sage government analysts decided after careful study that the continued stewardship of a nonprofit association was the best thing for the citizens, the sport, and the horses. What it really came down to was something decidedly less noble.

If Spitzer had recommended that any other operator take over, NYRA would have been in court the next morning pressing its claim that it owns the three tracks and the land beneath them. It's a claim that Spitzer mocked and vowed to steamroll when he was on the campaign trail last fall, but one that his advisers told him had more than a longshot's chance of carrying the day in court, and would at the very least take years to wind through the judicial system. The land claim was always NYRA's trump card, and agreeing to give it up was the price of the 30-year extension Spitzer has now recommended.

It's kind of like when the right horse wins a race for the wrong reason: You don't have to give the money back and it doesn't mean that the best horse didn't land in the winner's circle. NYRA probably was the right horse and the right choice going forward. It was the only one of the final four bidders that made a credible case that it was in this for the racing rather than the chance to put slot-machine profits into its own pockets. As the inevitability of Spitzer's recommendation became clear in recent months, none of the other bidders was able to frame a single compelling argument that they offered a better alternative.

There may still be consolation prizes for the losers. Part of what made NYRA such a clear-cut choice was Spitzer's decision to separate the racing and slots operations, and the unsuccessful franchise bidders are now leading candidates to be given the management contract to run the racino likely to open at Aqueduct in 2009. This becomes the next phase of the process and explains why the other bidders are still complaining about the outcome and rallying their political backers.

Spitzer's recommendation was quickly endorsed by Sheldon Silver, the assembly speaker and one of the two legislative power brokers who must bless the plan. The other, senate majority leader Joe Bruno, just as quickly denounced it, which was not an upset given that these days Spitzer and Bruno would denounce each other for alleging that ice cream is cold and tasty. Bruno doesn't have a better idea beyond some vague talk that other bidders, including those he supported and who have supported him, deserve to be included somehow. Spitzer has his own personal allies bidding for the slots concession.

The choice of whose cronies run the slots probably doesn't matter to racing or its customers. What does matter is what NYRA will do with its apparent victory, now that it will be bailed out of bankruptcy and freed from perpetual campaigning for its continued existence. Thus liberated, it can begin truly investing in the sport and its future and honestly addressing the serious issues given only lip service during the franchise-renewal process: enhancing the facilities and customer experience; using technology to bolster integrity on the both the wagering and medication fronts; restoring quality to a racing program that too often promotes mediocrity; putting some real money and teeth into animal-welfare efforts; and working with the state to repair and revise New York's dysfunctional offtrack-betting system.

There's a long way to go until the Official sign is lit on NYRA's renewal, between the slots contract, the need to rewrite the state's racing laws, and the poisonous current politics of Albany. Still, it's not too early to begin answering the question posed by the Robert Redford character in the closing lines of the 1972 movie "The Candidate." Having won a political election after campaigning so long and hard that his original goals are nearly forgotten, the candidate looks shell-shocked as he wonders aloud: "We won. What do we do now?"