04/03/2007 12:00AM

A frosty New York springtime

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The first two weeks in April will be eventful ones for New York racing. At Aqueduct, the game finally returns to the main track April 4, and Grade 1 racing returns to the state for the first time since November with the Wood Memorial and Carter Handicap April 7. In Albany, Gov. Eliot Spitzer's new panel to resolve the state's racing franchise beyond 2007 will hear presentations from the four bidders at public hearings April 10 and 11.

It seems fitting that the month will begin with a tiny snapshot of so much that is dysfunctional about racing in the state: Aqueduct will be closed April 1 because it is Palm Sunday. No other state in the country suspends racing each year for that reason, and other instate gambling will go on as usual, yet it seems no racing official or legislator can be bothered to change the antiquated and illogical law.

So Aqueduct will be closed, which is how it seems even when it's open these days. Every day looks like a dark day when you first drive in from the Belt Parkway because, thanks to yet another ancient and irrational political dispute, this one with the Port Authority, the huge parking field off the clubhouse turn has been walled off with concrete barriers. While negotiations with the authority drag on, the vast lot remains closed to Aqueduct patrons and sits there absolutely empty, a daily rebuke by a state authority to racing and its customers.

Five years ago, voters approved slot machines at Aqueduct but none is running, thanks to the stonewalling of the Pataki administration amid its unsuccessful attempt to throw the racing franchise to cronies at a devalued price. Instead of a sparkling new facility offering the nation's richest racing thanks to what could have been a virtual monopoly on slots in New York City, we have an empty parking lot.

The good news is that things will eventually get better. Some day the slots will start spinning and pumping money into the game, and whoever gets the franchise is going to have a lot more money to work with than the New York Racing Association ever has. The process will begin with the Spitzer panel's hearings, when the four franchise-bidders will present their cases. Unfortunately, there is little indication so far that the governor or his panel is equipped to evaluate the bids within the narrow timeline they have set of reaching a decision by the end of June.

Spitzer has yet to identify his panelists beyond saying they will be drawn from the State Racing and Wagering Board and the state's Budget and Agriculture departments. This is a little scary on two counts. It suggests that no one with any specialized knowledge or experience in horse racing is advising Spitzer or will be involved in the decision, and it confirms growing suspicions that Spitzer may privately favor a state takeover and a new bureaucratic agency to run the sport. Every statement about the process from his office has emphasized that he reserves the right to deem all of the bidders unworthy.

The only other aspect of the issue Spitzer has accented is "integrity," instituting a new, lengthy and redundant gamut of background checks for all the bidders. No one opposes integrity any more than they oppose motherhood or cute puppies, but the kind of national-security level disclosures Spitzer is demanding are completely beside the point.

Whatever deficiencies of character or intent the bidders or previous operators possess have not been in the arena of concealed criminal records or financial transactions. Every one of the bidders (or most of their operating partners, in the case of Empire Racing) is currently licensed by government regulators and has been repeatedly and stringently vetted to operate racing, offtrack betting, or casinos as part of their current operations.

The new integrity checks forced two of the prospective bidders, Catskill OTB and Steve Wynn's Thoroughbred Racing-NY, to drop out. While both appeared to be more tire-kickers than serious applicants, their objections to the cost and timetable surrounding this symbolic exercise sounded reasonable

"We have the money, but there's a principle of conduct," said Catskill OTB's president and CEO, Donald Groth, noting that his company already reports to the racing and wagering board, state comptroller, and state Tax Commission. "Catskill OTB could not agree to such a large payment of public monies for a report which would still further certify Catskill's well-studied integrity."

Yet another expensive and time-consuming probe has nothing to do with the issues at hand and everything to do with Spitzer's prosecutorial background and ongoing self-promotion as Mr. Clean. It's turning the next, vital phase of resolving the future of New York racing into as much of a sad, political joke as the empty parking lot and the ban on Palm Sunday racing.