04/13/2003 11:00PM

New York OTB faces fine after opening Palm Sunday


NEW YORK - The New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation defied an order by state regulators to close its parlors on Sunday and now faces fines or other sanctions.

The offtrack betting company, which is owned by New York City, opened 37 of its 75 branches on Sunday in defiance of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board's opinion that parimutuel betting at OTB parlors on Palm Sunday is illegal. Handle at the sites was $1.7 million, compared to OTB's average daily Sunday handle of $2.5 million, according to OTB officials. OTB also took wagers through its telephone and Internet betting operation.

A New York state racing law passed in 1973 prohibits racing associations from holding races and taking bets on three Christian holidays: Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, and Christmas. Although offtrack betting corporations are not mentioned specifically, the state's six offtrack betting companies had never before opened on those days.

The law has been criticized by racing fans and some racing officials as being archaic. But racing associations and OTB companies have been reluctant to question the law in public under concern that religious groups would be offended.

John Van Lindt, the executive vice president for New York City OTB, said that the law did not apply to offtrack betting companies. He also said that New York City OTB was under pressure to increase revenues to the city because of the budget crisis and the poor winter weather that has wreaked havoc with racing schedules along the Eastern seaboard.

"Our counsel could not find anything in the law that said it was illegal, and with the way things are in the city financially, we have to try to make as much money as we can," Van Lindt said.

According to Stacy Clifford, a spokeswoman for the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, officials from New York City OTB notified the board on Thursday that the company would take bets on Sunday. In response, Bob Feuerstein, the board's counsel, sent a letter to the company on Friday stating that "NYCOTB is prohibited from conducting parimutuel wagering" on Sunday and the other holidays and that "disregard of this prohibition will subject NYCOTB to potential fines and other sanctions authorized by law."

Clifford said the board has not yet decided how to punish the OTB company for opening on Sunday. She said the law allows the board to fine the company "$5,000 for each offense" or to lodge other sanctions, but she said she could not be specific. She said regulators have not determined whether Sunday's action constituted multiple offenses.

"We're looking at the situation now and discussing all of our options thoroughly," Clifford said.

Clifford also said that OTB officials have told regulators that they plan to take bets on Easter Sunday as well.

Van Lindt, however, said that New York City OTB has not yet decided whether to open on Easter. "There is no plan either way," Van Lindt said. "We are still evaluating how the day went."

Van Lindt said that Sunday was probably a profitable day for the company, considering half of the OTB's branches were closed and handle was more than half the average.

The law prohibiting racing on the Christian holidays has become seemingly more archaic due to the explosion of other wagering opportunities for horseplayers through telephone accounts and Internet companies. No out-of-state account-wagering service, for example, prohibits its New York customers from betting on the holidays.