11/27/2002 1:00AM

New York captain on steady course


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Counter to the general trend throughout the country, business at the tracks operated by the New York Racing Association - Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga - has been reasonably good. As he begins his third year as chairman of NYRA's board of trustees, Barry Schwartz points to the decision last year to reduce the takeout on wagering as a key element of this performance.

NYRA reduced the takeout on straight bets from 15 to 14 percent, went from 20 to 17.5 percent on multiple wagers, and from 25 to 20 percent on pick six days without a carryover.

The takeout reduction has led to a substantial boost in handle, Schwartz said, and the increase in handle prompted higher purses, further enhancing the quality of racing.

The NYRA signal is a highly prized commodity throughout the racing community, and Schwartz points out that 85 percent of the handle is generated offtrack.

"You have a situation where bad weather in the New York area may reduce the wagering at Aqueduct by a couple hundred-thousand dollars," he noted, "but the offtrack handle that day might be up by more than a million. People like to bet on our racing."

Schwartz thinks that a major challenge ahead for NYRA will be to seek ways to attract more people to the tracks for major events.

"People will respond for attractive programs," he said. "We had 100,000 out for the Belmont last spring and had huge crowds at Saratoga.

"We've got to create some of that Saratoga atmosphere at Belmont, and we've got to reach out for a wider group of people than we've targeted in the past."

He likes the work of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in marketing racing on a national basis and believes the large increase in races televised across the country will help attract new fans.

Schwartz said he has an offer from Gov. George Pataki of New York for a five-year extension of the NYRA franchise, contingent on the opening of a video lottery terminal casino at Aqueduct by April 1.

"That is not possible," he pointed out. "From the time you break ground for that kind of facility until you are ready to open is a period of nine to 10 months."

Schwartz said another hurdle is determining how slots revenue will be divided. The percentage of revenue NYRA would get, 12 1/2 percent, is about 5 percent short of what is needed, he said.

"It can't be done for that figure, Schwartz said. "We've spoken to a lot of casino operators, and no one is interested at the price."

Schwartz hopes to continue talks with Gov. Pataki and the horsemen, seeking an additional 2 1/2 percent from each toward the introduction of slots at Aqueduct. He said VLT's at Aqueduct would generate a minimum of $300 million a year.

"This year we'll distribute about $116.5 million in purses," Schwartz said. "That is an increase of approximately $3 million over last season. With the slots in place we will be able to raise purses by something like $30 million."

Schwartz said he is continuing to seek the acquisition of the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation for NYRA, although there is no movement on the issue at this time. He took note of New York City's effort to close a big gap in the annual budget and speculated that could provoke a resumption of talks.

On the subject of the pick six investigation, Schwartz said that news of the scam has served to put the entire industry on its toes to the inadequacy of the system as presently drawn. He emphasized that every weakness will be carefully addressed.

Schwartz's plate has been piled high with problems during his brief tenure, but he retains the enthusiasm for racing and love of horses that he brought to his post. For every crisis that presents itself, he is confident there is an acceptable solution, and he takes comfort that in dealing with all matters he has the services of a staff he terms extraordinary.