02/23/2007 1:00AM

Excelsior officials meet with N.Y. horsemen


GARDEN CITY, N.Y. - Senior officials from Excelsior Racing Associates met with horsemen for the first time Thursday night to discuss their ambitious and aggressive plans for New York racing if they are awarded the franchise to run the state's three major Thoroughbred tracks.

Excelsior executives Richard Fields, Steve Swindal, and John Johnston addressed a group of about 50 horsemen and discussed their goals of making Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga "destination resorts," offering a possible daily purse structure of $800,000 to $1 million, and making a commitment to improve conditions for backstretch workers.

Fields, a casino developer who recently made a proposal to buy majority interest in Suffolk Downs, holds a 47.5 percent interest in Excelsior. The shares held by Swindal, a general partner in the New York Yankees and son-in-law of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner; three of his family members; and the Johnston family - the owners of Balmoral Park in Illinois - combine to form another 47.5 percent interest.

Thursday's meeting, held at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Garden City, N.Y., came one day after the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing released the details of its report recommending that Excelsior be chosen over Empire Racing Associates and the current franchise holder, the New York Racing Association, to run racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. The recommendation is nonbinding.

Naturally, a major topic of discussion was the construction of a casino with 4,500 slot machines at Aqueduct and the possibility of a casino being legalized at Belmont Park. Excelsior officials made it clear they want to build elaborate facilities that would include retail outlets, high-class restaurants, and a theater/nightclub.

"We're talking about building this unbelievable destination," said Fields, the co-developer of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casinos located in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla. "We're going to drive people in because we're going to have the best restaurants, the best theaters, the best stores - there's going to be excitement. We're going to drive 30,000 people a day through there - some of them, by the way, are going to go for the slots, and lots of them are not. We're going to be driving people in; they're going to sample the horse product. They're going to come back because the horse product is so exciting."

Though a successful developer, Fields stressed his agricultural background, which includes ranching and a professional and personal interest in Quarter Horse racing.

Other Excelsior officials who spoke included consultants such as Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, trainer Gary Contessa, owner Jerry Bilinksi, and Dick Powell, who did much of the research for the group's proposal to run the franchise.

Currently, MGM Grand has a five-year contract to run the casino at Aqueduct. While Fields acknowledged that Excelsior would work with MGM for that period, he believes the deal is "bad for racing and would be bad for the state of New York" because he feels MGM wouldn't want to market the casino aggressively enough due to its casino interests in Atlantic City.

MGM has made a $190 million commitment to the Aqueduct slots project.

In its proposal, Excelsior projects that each of the slot machines at Aqueduct would bring in $591 per day, which is much higher than the estimates of Empire ($414) and NYRA ($400).

"We relied on an independent consultant to come up with those numbers; they were carefully studied and thought out, and we stand behind that number," Swindal said. "I think it goes to the heart of the issue of what we talked about tonight, which is we're not just talking racino here; we're talking ancillary entertainment venues and other attractions to bring people to the racetrack besides strictly [slots]."

It is unclear whether Swindal's involvement with the Yankees would conflict with any role in a casino. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has reserved comment until he gets all the details of the project.

"I really don't see that scenario coming up," Swindal said. "I am committed to making our investment in Excelsior a success and at the same time working my tail off to make the Yankees successful as well."

Swindal said that Excelsior would use the Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network as part of an aggressive marketing campaign for the racing product.

"We're not afraid to spend money," Swindal said. "We're not afraid to take the risks to turn this around."

One interesting exchange during the meeting came when trainer Gary Gullo brought up the fact that the smaller outfits are being run out of business by the larger stables. A potential cap on the number of horses a trainer may have in New York was discussed.

"We can't let you go out of business," Fields said to Gullo. "We have to figure out a way to make it work."

Excelsior officials were scheduled to meet on Friday night with New York horsemen who are based in south Florida and racing at Gulfstream Park.

Many of the horsemen who attended Thursday's meeting were impressed with Excelsior's presentation.

"That was the most refreshing thing that I've heard in a long time," trainer Billy Turner said. "They're people that are generally interested in horses but have an entirely new way of looking at things. They've seen the things that failed with the other organizations that went the casino way and they have an idea to make it work."