02/22/2002 1:00AM

NTRA to help with slots


NEW YORK - In a policy change, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association will now assist racetracks in their efforts to obtain slot machines and other types of gambling, officials said Friday.

The NTRA had previously declined to address the issue of alternative gambling, calling it a matter for individual racetracks. But recent moves to add slots in major racing states such as New York and Kentucky have prompted the NTRA to revise its priorities.

The assistance will only be offered if 11 of 15 members - a "supermajority" - of the NTRA's board and a "consensus of all significant NTRA member interests in the state" approve the effort, according to the policy paper.

Greg Avioli, the NTRA's deputy commissioner, said the NTRA board unanimously approved the resolution two weeks ago. Avioli said the new position was especially relevant now because of the lingering recession and efforts by states to raise additional tax revenue to close budget deficits.

"Virtually all of the state gambling legislation passed in the last 34 years has occurred in a recession, as states try to plug budget holes," Avioli said.

Pushing for expanded gambling could be thorny for the marketing organization because anti-gambling groups normally fight efforts to legalize slots at racetracks.

The NTRA's new position will also be complicated by the impact expanded racetrack gambling has on tracks in neighboring states. Many times, racetracks that border on states where expanded gambling is legal have complained that those states steal gamblers from their market, putting the NTRA in a position of possibly advocating slots at one track to the detriment of others.

Avioli said that the positions of those tracks would be protected by the supermajority voting requirement at the NTRA board. But Avioli also said that the NTRA would likely lean toward favoring expanded gambling in one state no matter what the impact on another state might be.

"It's not like we would agree that it would be good for one state but not good for a neighboring state so we wouldn't support it," Avioli said.

Before 2001, expanded gambling at tracks had been largely limited to struggling facilities that were said to be in dire financial peril, such as Delaware Park, Prairie Meadows in Iowa, and Charles Town and Mountaineer in West Virginia.

But the issue moved toward the mainstream late in 2001 when New York legislators approved video-lottery terminals at Aqueduct. In addition, Churchill Downs is backing an effort to legalize video-lottery terminals at its Kentucky tracks.

In a nod to horsemen, who make up roughly half of its dues-paying members, the NTRA said in the policy statement that "the interests of live racing including purses should be protected (e.g., legislatively) on a permanent or long-term basis." The statement also said that expanded gambling should "complement, and, where possible, enhance live racing."