12/30/2005 12:00AM

More chaos ahead in New York

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NEW YORK - It appears that New York state will ring in the new year by throwing a little money toward the New York Racing Association, heading off a bankruptcy filing for now. If you think that is a happy ending that signals an end to New York's racing woes, you ain't seen nothing yet.

It might seem that nothing could top, or bottom, the crises of 2005, a year of multiple investigations, indictments, federal monitors, and insolvency, but 2006 offers something even more important to the politicians who are responsible for all the chaos: a gubernatorial election. Gov. George Pataki will not run for a fourth term, believing (even if few others do) that he is a viable presidential candidate for 2008, and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is heavily favored to win the seat and end 12 years of Republican rule.

Between now and election day, however, Pataki will attempt to mold the future of New York racing despite his lame-duck status. His first priority is to get his longtime friend and supporter Bernadette Castro installed as the long-term chair of the state Racing and Wagering Board.

Ms. Castro is the foldout-couch heiress who as a 4-year-old appeared in her family's Castro Convertibles television ads. She unsuccessfully ran for Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Senate seat in 1994, and was rewarded for her party loyalty in that sacrificial endeavor by being appointed to Pataki's cabinet in 1995 as commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Her racing and wagering expertise appears to consist of the fact that her family's Golden Hills Golf & Turf Club in Marion County, Fla., hosts an annual dressage competition.

Her nomination is consistent with Pataki's pattern of appointing friends and political operatives with thin credentials to racing posts. In 2000, Pataki ousted Bennett Liebman from the racing board in favor of Cheryl Buley, a former lobbyist and the wife of one of his aides. Liebman, widely considered one of the nation's best racing regulators, had the misfortune only to be a Democrat. When Pataki was reminded that it was a legal requirement that board members not all be of the same political party, Buley registered as an Independent rather than a Republican.

To her credit, Buley has taken the job seriously and worked hard to overcome her inexperience, but her time spent learning on the job and the loss of Liebman's skills have contributed to the board's generally ineffective performance amid the crisis of New York racing.

Pataki last year appointed Castro to his ad hoc racing committee, which is scheduled to hold two days of public hearings in late January as a first step to beginning a perhaps accelerated process to put the NYRA franchise out for bid. It is conceivable that Castro's experience with the parks office, where she has received generally good reviews for brokering public-private partnerships and preserving green spaces, would have been useful in considering the future of New York's tracks.

It has no applicability, however, to the business of the racing board, a job that requires broad knowledge of racing, law, and gambling. How many years will it take before Castro is up to speed to offer an opinion, much less a ruling, on medication positives, simulcasting law, or rebate programs?

"My role," she told the Ocala Star-Banner in an interview following her nomination, "is to see that racing in New York is the most honest in the country. Any time that anyone thinks a race is not real, or a blackjack hand is not genuine, we are in trouble."

The board does not authenticate hands of blackjack, but presumably that will be explained in her welcome packet explaining the job.

The Castro nomination has already prompted a small circus in Albany, though not for reasons of merit. Joe Bruno, the leader of the state Senate, has thus far blocked the appointment because he has been unsuccessfully trying to get a nominee of his own, John Simoni, onto a board that has inexcusably been short one commissioner for the last three years. There are not enough vacancies for both appointments because Michael Hoblock, the former chairman, has refused to resign despite being stripped of his leadership role in another dispute with Pataki.

The day after Bruno declined to push through the Castro nomination, he told The New York Times that Pataki retaliated by denying him use of a state helicopter.

So for the moment, Buley is the chairwoman, Hoblock has been demoted to a mere commissioner, and Castro awaits a break in the Pataki-Bruno logjam to take over. You can't make this stuff up. Happy New Year.