02/06/2008 12:00AM

Horsemen gird for closure, consider options

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. – With New York Racing Association officials sounding the alarms about a possible shutdown of racing beginning Feb. 14, some horsemen have started the process of looking elsewhere to stable and run their horses, while others may soon be doing the same.

NYRA officials sent letters to horsemen and employees on Wednesday advising them of a possible shutdown of racing beginning Feb. 14, the day after a short-term franchise extension expires. Furthermore, the letter stated that if no franchise agreement can be reached by Feb.?27, all horses, horsemen, and backstretch employees must vacate the grounds of Belmont and Aqueduct. About 1,000 backstretch employees live on the grounds of the two tracks.

NYRA management also met with seven members of a trainers’ advisory council on Wednesday. Those trainers were Tom Bush, Carl Domino, David Donk, Dominic Galluscio, Leah Gyarmati, Pat Kelly, and Linda Rice.

The letter to horsemen indicated that training would be available for one week at both Aqueduct and Belmont following a shutdown. But later in the afternoon, NYRA president Charles Hayward said that training would continue at Belmont through Feb. 27. Horses based at Aqueduct would be moved to Belmont for that second week.

Some trainers have had contact with officials at Laurel Park in Maryland about possibly moving some horses down there. Gary Contessa, who has more than 100 horses stabled between Aqueduct and Belmont, said he could gain access to 40 stalls at Laurel.

“I know they’re willing to have me, but if I can stay here I’m not going anywhere,” Contessa said Wednesday afternoon. “Even if it means paying to train, I would choose to stay here. That would be my last resort, but I’m certainly going to run at Laurel and I’m going to run at Philadelphia. I got to keep the horses running. That’s first and foremost.”

NYRA officials said it would cost $40,000 a day to keep training open at Belmont, a cost that the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association would be unable to absorb, according trainer Rick Violette, the horsemen’s association president.

Richard Dutrow Jr., who has 65 to 70 horses stabled in New York, said he, too, has had contact with Maryland officials to send about 20 horses to Laurel.

Gyarmati said, “Looking at other tracks and seeing what they have available is one thing I’m going to have to do, or looking at training centers.”

Donk, who has 20 horses stabled at Belmont, also called Laurel an option.

“I didn’t realize the cutoff line was so short,” Donk said. “I thought we would be able to go on and train here, so for people to uproot their employees and families, I don’t know where everybody is going to go. Everybody isn’t going to be able to pick up and move.”

Donk said some of his owners have been reluctant to ship horses to him that are about ready to come back from layoffs.

While making contingency plans, Contessa and Dutrow and many other horsemen remained hopeful that an agreement can be worked out among Gov. Eliot Spitzer, senate majority leader Joe Bruno and assembly speaker Sheldon Silver by next week.

“I truly believe cooler heads will prevail,” Contessa said. “Racing is too important to the state to see it get stopped, and I believe as in most New York politics they’ll come to a resolution. I think all sides are going to work it out.”

Ernie Paragallo, the authorized agent for his family-owned Paraneck Stable, which has 50 horses in New York, said he could move horses to his farm in upstate New York, but reiterated Contessa’s line that “I think cooler heads will prevail.”

Violette, who has 39 horses in New York and 30 more in Florida, said NYRA’s letter is “putting pressure on the legislature” to make a deal.

“We hope it’s a good deal and not some rush to get something done because they’re tired of talking about it,” Violette said.

Violette reiterated the horsemen’s position that the portrayal of Bruno as the person holding up an agreement “is irresponsible.” Violette said Bruno has been the only one fighting for the horsemen’s rights, including a proper cut of projected revenue from slot machines at Aqueduct as well as a change to law that currently doesn’t require horsemen’s approval of NYRA’s simulcasting contracts.

On Tuesday, members of the Jockeys’ Guild met with Bruno as well as representatives from Silver’s office, asking that money from either slot machines or uncashed parimutuel tickets be earmarked for jockeys’ health benefits. Guild president Terry Meyocks as well as jockeys John Velazquez, Mike Luzzi, and John Grabowski were at that meeting.