10/12/2006 11:00PM

Horsemen's support of Empire divisive

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As the acrimony between the New York Racing Association and the New York Thoroughbred Horseman's Association board intensifies, there now appears to be a growing discord between the NYTHA board and some of the members it represents.

In the wake of the increased finger-pointing between NYRA and the NYTHA board regarding the delay in the slot-machine project at Aqueduct, several high-profile trainers have expressed concern about the NYTHA board's decision to back Empire Racing Associates in its bid to obtain the franchise to run racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. NYRA holds that franchise through Dec. 31, 2007.

"A lot of us don't feel the organization representing us should support an outside group that we don't know anything of, one, without consulting us, and two, when you've got management here which is still trying to make it every day," said trainer Christophe Clement. "Let's try to get the VLT's [video lottery terminals]; let's try to help them first."

"Right now, NYRA management manages New York racing, and I think that the horsemen should be supporting NYRA management the way it is right now," said Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, who trains for NYRA board member Ogden Mills Phipps. "If Empire or Excelsior or whoever gets it later on, then I think we should support them."

In March, NYTHA's 11-member board of directors agreed to support Empire, and NYTHA received a 3 percent equity stake in the company and two seats on Empire's board. The NYTHA board - which represents approximately 6,000 members - said it was a unanimous decision, but one board member, Gary Contessa, has since joined Excelsior Racing Associates, another group in the running for the franchise.

"Basically, they never asked me who I back," said trainer John Kimmel. "I think they're stepping across the boundary, with something as major as that, not to have some sort of general referendum amongst the people they represent to see where we stand. I guess they take it for granted since they're elected officials they represent everybody. I think with major issues such as who's going to run that franchise, it might be a little more involved."

"As far as backing any one group for this franchise, I'm neutral," said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. "I think it's very presumptuous of them to assume that they're representing all the horsemen, because I don't know that all the horsemen feel that way. I don't know that the majority feel that way."

"On any subject you're not going to get unanimity," said trainer Rick Violette, who is the NYTHA board's vice president and who trains for Terry Finley, an Empire board member. "We're going to have a general meeting this fall, but getting horsemen to a general meeting is like pulling teeth. A lot of times it's second nature to second-guess. None of this was taken lightly. We did speak to a number of people and could have probably done a better job communicating things."

The NYTHA board threw its support behind Empire's bid because Empire has agreed to address many horsemen's concerns, including a guarantee of live racing dates and agreeing not to use horsemen's funds for operating expenses, as NYRA did before changing policy at the end of 2004.

"There were lots of reasons why we supported Empire, and all of them have to do with an effort to make racing better for everybody in New York," Violette said.

Last month, NYRA president Charles Hayward and NYRA chairman Steve Duncker sent a letter to the NYTHA members that, among other things, accused the NYTHA board of directors of not supporting NYRA's efforts to activate a revenue stream for slot machines - also known as VLT's, for video lottery terminals. The letter asked each board member to sign a slot-machine letter of support. To date, NYRA has received 633 responses from approximately 3,700 letters sent.

In response to NYRA's letter, the NYTHA board sent a letter to its membership saying, "No one has been more vocal and aggressive in urging the legislature and the governor's office to expedite the [slot machine] approvals than the NYTHA board." It notes that on Sept. 5, members of the NYTHA board met with officials for the governor's office to discuss the slots project.

The NYTHA's adversarial tone is a point of concern to some horsemen.

"The newsletter they sent out is always pro-Empire and always speaking against [NYRA] management, and I don't think that it's right that they take a stand like that," McGaughey said. "Not that I'm against Empire, because I'm not. But right now we should all be in support of NYRA management and try to move [the slots project] forward instead of taking backward steps. If Empire gets in, same thing."

Empire presses for release of funds

Empire Racing asked Gov. George Pataki in a letter Tuesday to take prompt action in seeing that the full amount of a state loan package was released to the New York Racing Association. NYRA has not received $19 million of the $30 million package, which was provided by legislation but has been withheld by the state lottery division pending approval of a slots plan for Aqueduct. NYRA has said that without the funds it might declare bankruptcy by the end of the year, which the Empire letter said "will impose great uncertainty" on New York horsemen.