08/07/2001 12:00AM

I want NYRA, Stronach says

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Frank Stronach, the chairman of Magna Entertainment, signaled his intent on Tuesday to bid for the New York Racing Association's franchise, telling an audience of officials from the Thoroughbred industry that he would make "major changes" to Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga if the franchise were in his hands.

"We would not only love to buy [NYRA], we would love to make it a major entertainment and destination center," Stronach said. "It needs investment. It needs jazzing up."

Stronach disclosed his intention just a week after a partnership headed by Magna was named the winning bidder for New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation over a partnership headed by NYRA, a decision that has divided state legislators and racing officials. The legislature would have to approve the sale of the OTB, and many lawmakers and racing officials have said that prospect is unlikely this year because of opposition from NYRA, the president of the city council, and the union that represents the OTB's employees.

The state will not open up bidding for the NYRA franchise until at least 2005, officials have said. NYRA's franchise expires in 2007. Stronach said that he welcomes the opportunity to pursue the association's racing license, and he used Magna's winning bid for OTB to issue a challenge to NYRA.

"I want to have a fair process, just like what happened for OTB," Stronach said. "I want a fair process where everyone is out in the open and says this is what we will pay for NYRA. Let the best man win."

Stronach made his comments as a surprise substitute for his son Andy, on a panel at a one-day racing-law conference at the Gideon Putnam Hotel. The conference was organized by the Government Law Center of Albany Law School.

Frank Stronach was not named on the list of conference speakers. His son, who was in attendance, is an executive vice president for Magna and was scheduled to speak about privatization on Magna's behalf.

In addition to his remarks concerning NYRA's racing franchise, Stronach clashed with fellow panelist and former New York State Senator Howard Nolan, who criticized Magna for not fulfilling promises the company had made to horsemen at several of its racetracks. In comments that meandered at times, Stronach touched on a wide range of subjects, including one of his favorite themes: freeing racetracks from regulation.

But Stronach broke new ground when he tipped his hand on a desire to bid for NYRA, which is franchised by the state to operate Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. The three tracks are considered the most valuable racing property in North America, with a total annual handle in excess of $2.5 billion. Magna already owns 10 racetracks, including eight Thoroughbred tracks, after a dizzying two-year buying spree. The company's flagship properties are Santa Anita in Southern California and Gulfstream Park north of Miami.

The NYRA franchise has been pursued by other companies, but the state has consistently spurned those offers in favor of NYRA, which has conducted racing at the three tracks since 1955. In exchange for the franchise, NYRA contributes its profit to the state while pledging to work on behalf of the New York racing industry.

Nolan, a Thoroughbred owner and breeder who is the president of the New York State Thoroughbred Breeders, challenged Stronach, saying that Magna had not fulfilled promises it made to improve several tracks it had purchased. Nolan said that Magna had disappointed breeders and horsemen when Santa Anita Park, a Magna property, twice canceled plans to play host to the Breeders' Cup.

"There are some that would say that since Magna purchased Santa Anita [in 1998], nothing has been accomplished," Nolan said. "Maybe history will prove me wrong."

Stronach responded by saying that people in the racing industry "are spreading a lot of bad news about us," using the phrase "the club" as a euphemism for the industry's establishment leadership. Stronach has frequently cited racing's "clubbishness" to criticize how the industry conducts business, arguing that many racing officials are ill-suited to operate in a free-market environment.

After the panel, Nolan said that the New York breeders' group would fight any legislative package approving Magna as the operator of the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation. He also questioned whether the legislature would address the city's decision this year, citing the fact that New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani - who promised to privatize the city OTB when running for office eight years ago - has only four months left in office.

"I would be very surprised if the legislature approved a lame-duck mayor's proposal," Nolan said.