08/05/2004 11:00PM

Monitors move in at Spa

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In two gray, nondescript trailers adjacent to Saratoga Racecourse's carousel restaurant in the grandstand, a staff of lawyers, accountants, and investigators have set up shop, operating behind signs that say "Authorized Personnel Only."

Unlike those people the signs seek to keep out, the personnel actually in the trailers are authorized to do just about anything at Saratoga, the upstate racetrack operated by the embattled New York Racing Association.

The trailers were set up by NYRA to provide office space for staff from Getnick and Getnick, a law firm specializing in corporate corruption. Getnick and Getnick was appointed by a federal judge to monitor NYRA's operations until July 2005, in a deal that allowed NYRA to avoid a conviction on federal conspiracy charges related to the conviction of 20 mutuel clerks for tax evasion.

The monitors have unlimited access to NYRA's books, its officials, the grounds at Saratoga, and even the day-to-day business planning undertaken by NYRA executives, according to Neil Getnick, the law firm's managing partner, and NYRA officials. When NYRA executives hold a conference call, one of the monitors listens in. When NYRA holds a board meeting, a monitor is present.

It is an unprecedented arrangement for a racetrack. But NYRA is in unprecedented times, operating under the court-appointed monitors while attempting to improve its standing politically in order to ensure that its franchise is renewed. NYRA's current franchise expires in 2007.

Getnick, speaking on Tuesday at a law conference, compared the work of his firm to the repair of a broken radio. The monitors, Getnick said, are looking for "broken circuits," a process that can be esoteric to many but is, nonetheless, necessary.

"Once those circuits are working, we become less important," said Getnick.

Getnick and NYRA officials declined this week to offer further comments on the role of the monitors at NYRA. But privately, NYRA officials have said the relationship between the two has not been adversarial. Getnick said during his Tuesday comments that NYRA officials have been cooperative in accommodating the monitors.

Though the monitors operate in the background, well out of sight of the casual racing fan - except for those who complain that the two trailers have taken away valuable picnic space - there are several outward indications of NYRA's current situation. Saratoga's famously open barn area, including the Oklahoma training track, has been closed to visitors this year for the first time because of security reasons, frustrating racing fans who had previously used Saratoga's open-door policy to watch morning workouts.

In addition, signs throughout the racetrack urge racing fans or track workers to call the monitors should any suspicious behavior be observed. The toll-free number promises confidentiality.

Getnick and Getnick reports to the state comptroller, Alan Hevesi, and the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York, which brought the charges against NYRA. NYRA pays for the firm to do its work at the track, with bills expected to run into the millions of dollars by the time the company has completed its work.

In its initial report to the state, filed on June 4, Getnick and Getnick described meeting with dozens of NYRA officials and establishing its role at the track. The report also described a series of meetings with horsemen's groups, New York off-track betting companies, and other organizations that have a relationship with NYRA. Getnick said those meetings at Saratoga have expanded to include grooms, hotwalkers, trainers, and jockeys.

The report also issued a warning to NYRA officials that cooperation with the monitors would be the only way for NYRA to avoid an indictment.

"We hope that NYRA will take advantage of this opportunity and carefully scrutinize all aspects of its operations, with an open mind to making necessary changes and improvements," the report said. "This is essential not only to ensure that NYRA complies with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, but to restore the public confidence in its ability to operate New York's Thoroughbred racetracks in a manner which promotes the integrity of the sport and the financial well-being of the State."

It is so far unclear what the monitors have found. Getnick said Friday that the company would not comment on any findings except in its official reports, but he also said that the company was seeking more latitude with regulators to discuss its role in public.

"Ever since we got up to Saratoga, we have had a lot of interest by the press in how we operate," Getnick said. "But we are not in a position to speak immediately, although we may be able to soon."

On Tuesday, Getnick said the monitors' most important goal would be to restore NYRA to a position of leadership in the industry.

"At the end, what I'm looking for is, is this industry more efficient?" Getnick said. "Is this industry more effective? Is this industry more profitable? We're only here until next July, and when we leave, things should run smoothly."