07/16/2010 2:18PM

New York can't afford to drag its heels

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NEW YORK – Saratoga opens Friday for a 40-day meeting, the longest at the beloved upstate track since 1882. The meet has grown from 24 to 30 to 36 and now 40 days over the last two decades, each time for the same reason and raising the same questions about geese and golden eggs.

The reason begins and ends with a dollar sign. A day of racing at Saratoga, whether in the middle of July or over Labor Day weekend, the peripheries to which the meet has now been stretched, will always attract more people and more betting dollars than the same card of racing downstate at Belmont Park. This has held true during every expansion of the meet, even as purists and crotchety sportswriters complain that the brand has been progressively watered down.

If the New York Racing Association were a publicly-held business answering to shareholders, the meet might already be 60 days instead of 40. Since it instead is run as a not-for-profit franchise, the expansions have at least been gradual and measured, in an attempt to balance the charm of a short boutique meet with economic realities.

At least everyone’s talking about the possibility of too many days of Saratoga instead of none at all. When I made a day trip to look at rental houses in May, everyone from real-estate agents to shopkeepers was questioning whether there would even be a Saratoga meet this year, since the NYRA had said it would run out of cash by June and shut down. The state was balking at providing cash it had promised as part of the franchise renewal agreement it signed two years ago on the off chance it would continue to fail to select an operator for the Aqueduct racino voters approved in 2001.

The only way to get the attention of anyone in New York state government about racing is to suggest that the Belmont Stakes or the Saratoga meeting might have to be canceled. Neither of those things will ever actually happen, but everyone goes through the ritual anyway. So those threats were floated, and the state finally lived up to its agreement and provided a loan in late May that will be repaid by the eventual racino operator.

That looked like it was going to be a relatively short-term loan after the state announced it would finally name that winning racino bidder by Aug. 3. For a few weeks, an unfamiliar sense of optimism hovered around the game. It seemed that nearly a decade of delays had finally come to an end, that the slot reels would be spinning by early 2012, and the era of milk, honey, and $80,000 maiden races was nearing the gate.

Then Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown once again. Two of the three bidders for the racino were disqualified earlier this month, and then last week a previously rejected bidder got a judge in Schenectady to halt the entire process. Now there’s talk that the Aug. 3 deadline will come and go and nothing will happen until a new governor, presumably the odds-on Andrew Cuomo, is installed in January.

Then there’s the ongoing saga of New York City OTB, which is in bankruptcy and owes the NYRA $20 million in unpaid statutory betting commissions and is now being run by a $125,000-a-month bankruptcy-reorganization specialist. It also was reported last week that despite claiming to have no cash to pay its bills, NYCOTB has shelled out nearly $500,000 since last fall to a fancy public-relations firm for a campaign to rehabilitate its public image.

Said campaign has been utterly invisible and ineffective, with the notable exception of the editorial boards of the city’s three daily newspapers. The Daily News, Post, and Times have dutifully swallowed OTB’s outrageous canard that its problems are the result of paying too much for the signals on which it handles nearly $1 billion a year – rather than, say, its being a bloated and anachronistic system that actually underpays the racing industry and instead spends that money providing redundant jobs for politicians’ cronies.

Andrew Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, believed that the OTB system was hopelessly incompetent and wasteful but also too politically entrenched to be dismantled. But that was nearly 20 years ago, before nearly every entity in racing, not to mention the state itself, was truly or virtually bankrupt. The state literally can no longer afford the current OTB system, much less passing up the $1 million a day the Aqueduct racino will eventually provide it, just as soon as the state can get around to what should be a simple task of picking an operator.

It will happen – any year now.