08/03/2001 12:00AM

Neigh-sayer sees business as usual

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So what exactly happened Thursday regarding a possible sale of New York City Offtrack Betting Corporation? Your answer may depend on which New York newspaper headlines you read.

"City sells OTB to Canadian in $389M deal," is what happened according to the New York Daily News. "After more than 30 years, New York City is getting out of the bookie business," the story began. The OTB story was second-billed in the Friday newspaper, behind only "Mariah's Night of Anguish" on the cover.

The New York Post, whose cover story was "Hillary plays Viagra hard ball" (you don't want to know), buried its coverage on page 22 under the headline "Neigh-sayers rip Giuliani's plan for OTB."

The newspaper of record, The New York Times, spurned Mariah and Hillary and led the paper with something boring about Congress and health care. Back on page B3 was an unusual take on the OTB situation entitled "Horse Parlors Will Get Ritzy Under a City Plan to Sell Them."

Only the Saratoga Springs newspaper, The Saratogian, made it the story of the day. "Giuliani passes on NYRA to run OTB" was in the right-hand corner of page 1, nosing out "Mechanicville to get more tax revenue" as the top of the news.

So what was it - a sale, a war, a redecorating scheme, or a snub? For the full details, I commend readers to Matt Hegarty's coverage in this newspaper, but here's the quick answer. Two things happened:

1. Nothing.

2. Nothing good.

The nothing part is that there was no sale. The city, as had been expected for weeks, announced that the partnership of Magna Entertainment and Greenwood Racing, rather than the New York Racing Association, had "won" an "auction" to buy NYC-OTB. Unfortunately (for Magna/Greenwood) or fortunately (for NYRA), the whole thing has to be approved by state legislators for anything to happen, and that's still a longshot at best. The NYRA has very strong support in Albany, where the city and lame-duck Mayor Giuliani have few friends.

Regardless of the size and merits of anyone's bid - and no one has even pretended merit is a factor in this highly secretive political puppet show - there is simply no way that the state is going to allow a sale to an out-of-state/out-of-country partnership at the expense of hundreds of patronage and union jobs. Your friendly local NYC-OTB "parlor" is odds-on to be in the same grimy hands it always has been for a long time to come.

The Saratogian had it right. Giuliani didn't award anything to Magna/Greenwood so much as he deprived NYRA, which probably would have won state approval as a winning bidder.

The "nothing good" part is that any spirit of furthering the public interest that might have resulted from a possible sale is now impossible, and we are in for months or years of more infighting and puppetry. NYRA chairman Barry Schwartz has already called the city "stupid" and denounced the sale with a beefy barnyard epithet. Giuliani and his minions have followed suit, calling their decision a "no-brainer."

Either Magna/Greenwood or NYRA would have been preferable to the status quo. The "winning" bidder, whether or not you think it is an appropriate owner, brings more money, knowledge, and experience in racing and wagering than the celebrities and civil servants the Mayor's office keeps installing at OTB. NYRA's credentials to operate an offtrack betting system are a blank page, but they couldn't do worse than the current operators, and offtrack control of their own product could only help the sport.

Instead, it's going to be business as usual. Whichever Democrat is elected to succeed Giuliani this fall will fight any sale and the attendant loss of union and patronage jobs. We'll hear some noise about the city cleaning up OTB and bringing it into the 21st century, and then someone's brother-in-law or big campaign contributor will get the big corner office and have to learn which end of the horse eats and what an exacta is. OTB customers will continue to be robbed on a daily basis through surcharges on their winnings that make victory impossible and will eventually drive them to slot machines.

So who wins? The guy who always does, Hizzoner the mayor. Eight years ago, Giuliani said he would clean up and sell OTB, which he called the only bookmaker ever to lose money. Now he will claim that he turned OTB into a moneymaker and honored his campaign promise with a $389 million sale. Never mind that, accounting tricks aside, OTB was making more money eight years ago than it is today and that there will be no sale. It still will make a stirring chapter in the Mayor's memoirs.