08/21/2005 11:00PM

'Friends' looks to shepherd racing bill


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Friends of New York Racing, an advocacy group formed last December, is contemplating whether to raise funds to allow it to operate for at least another six months in order to serve as the racing industry's lobbyist on a bill to restructure the state's racing law, the chief executive of the organization, Tim Smith, said on Monday.

The group's board will meet in September to vote on the extension, Smith said after a town hall-type meeting at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion. Friends of New York Racing was initially given funding for a year to gather data on New York's racing industry and develop strategies and recommendations for how the racing law should be rewritten. The group is funded by an array of nonprofit organizations and publicly traded companies, including The Jockey Club, Churchill Downs Inc., and Magna Entertainment Corp.

The extension would allow the group to use FNYR money to spearhead lobbying efforts on model legislation that is now being developed by the Albany Law School's Program on Racing and Wagering Law. A draft of the bill is expected to be released in September for public discussion and introduced at the beginning of the 2006 legislative session.

Smith, a former member of the Carter administration and the former chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said the group has not yet received formal commitments from its supporters to fund another year of operation.

"Anecdotally, informally, some of the people on the board who have advocated extending our life have indicated that they are willing to help pay additional funding, but the short answer is that it remains to be determined," Smith said. "The goal would be to stick around and get the legislation passed, which could take, in the best-case scenario, the next six months, but we could easily be here at this time next year, still working."

FNYR was formed to counter efforts by gambling companies to take over racing at the New York Racing Association's three tracks, Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. NYRA's franchise to operate the three tracks and a casino at Aqueduct expires at the end of 2007, and the legislature is expected to issue a request for proposals for bidders on the franchise early next year. The bidding process is expected to be highly politicized.

Smith said that one of the goals of the racing law that will be supported by FNYR is to include as many provisions as possible to protect racing, such as minimum racing days and mandatory purse contributions.

"You have to have enough in the statute that would disincentivize a pure casino play," Smith said.

The town hall meeting held on Monday was designed to allow New York residents to offer feedback on FNYR's initial report, which was released several months ago. The report recommended that New York's racing law be completely overhauled; that a for-profit structure operate racing in the state; that offtrack betting companies be invited to take an equity position in NYRA or its successor; and that slot machines be legalized at Belmont.