11/09/2007 1:00AM

Handicapping the slots race

EmailNEW YORK - Which of the three hosts of an American classic will be the first to offer slot machines as well as a Triple Crown race - Churchill Downs, the Maryland Jockey Club, or the New York Racing Association? After a trifecta of recent slots development in Kentucky, Maryland, and New York, the race is on.

In Kentucky, the victory in last Tuesday's gubernatorial election by Steve Beshear, a pro-slots Democrat, over the anti-slots Republican incumbent, Ernie Fletcher, has given the state's tracks their best chance yet of installing one-armed bandits amid the burgoo and julep stands. Beshear campaigned on the issue, saying slots at the state's eight tracks and four other locations would raise at least $500 million annually, while Fletcher reportedly spent half his advertising budget during the final two weeks of the campaign on anti-casino spots.

The day after the election, a Democratic state senator pre-filed a bill calling for a referendum to approve "alternative gambling" on the 2008 ballot. Kentucky's racing industry is finally united on the issue after years of internal discord, and has the funds to campaign strongly on the issue. On the downside, polls show public support lukewarm at best, and a similar measure was defeated in neighboring Ohio last year.

In Maryland, the state senate on Thursday night passed a bill that would allow voters to approve casinos in a statewide referendum next November. Under the measure, which will go to the voters if it passes through the other branch of the state legislature, there would be racinos at Laurel and Ocean Downs and three freestanding casinos, including one on the Baltimore Inner Harbor rather than at Pimlico.

Maryland has to be considered the early favorite to get its slots first. Public opinion appears to be more favorable than in Kentucky, and Maryland racing faces a graver and more imminent crisis without the machines, which have been operating and luring customers to tracks in the surrounding states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia.

As for New York, racinos were approved in 2001 and have come to every track in the state except those operated by the New York Racing Association, whose franchise expires in 50 days. NYRA's perpetual status as a political football and a supplicant for its own survival has prevented construction of an approved Aqueduct facility or any progress on the possibility of installing one at Belmont Park.

When Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced Sept. 4 that he was recommending a 30-year extension of the NYRA franchise and a separate operator for slots at Aqueduct, he promised to name that operator within 60 days. That deadline, like most in the process, slipped by last week amid nothing more than vague confirmations that discussions are taking place among aides representing the governor, the state senate, and the assembly, all of which must approve any franchise or slots plan.

The holdup is coming from the senate leader, Joe Bruno, who opposes Spitzer's plan solely because it was authored by Spitzer without his blessing, and who continues to float delusional alternatives. Bruno at first continued to support other franchise bidders because of their partnerships with high-profile racing companies, until all those companies abandoned the rival bidding groups. Last week, his aides claimed there was now a plan "kicking around" Albany to have different operators for Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, a thoroughly preposterous idea that has been rejected out of hand by every bidder for the franchise.

None of Bruno's ideas has gained any public or political traction, and his obstructionism is starting to cost him support in his upstate base, where the possibility of a racing shutdown on Jan. 1 if Bruno blocks a franchise extension already has people fretting about its possible effect on the 2008 Saratoga meeting. So it's likely Bruno will soon give up the ghost on the inevitable approval of the Spitzer racing plan and focus his demands on control over awarding the slots operations, perhaps under the guise of a new state gambling authority. Both Bruno and Spitzer have close associates in the real estate and gaming industries who would love a piece of the racino action, so perhaps racing's best hope is that that there is enough pork to be carved up there that the politicians will leave the racing end of things alone.

Of course the likelihood that all of this will be settled by New Year's Eve is approximately zero, and the process of bidding and building a racino for Aqueduct, much less Belmont, could easily last as long as the franchise battle already has. So even with a seven-year head start on legality, New York is no cinch to get there first. The slots could well be spinning in the old Kentucky home and Maryland before they ever reach the sidewalks of New York.