05/18/2007 12:00AM

N.Y. governor doubly wrong


NEW YORK - The past, present, and prospective future operators of New York racing have plenty of differences of opinion, but they have always agreed on a couple of things: New York needs both Aqueduct and Belmont, and it would be folly for more than a single entity to operate those two tracks and Saratoga. These two simple precepts have been endorsed by every panel the state has commissioned to study the racing industry over the last 50 years, and is the foundation of all four active bids for the New York racing Association franchise that expires at year's end.

So it should come as no surprise, in the absurd theatre of New York politics, that the new administration of Gov. Eliot Spitzer is floating a trial balloon to shut down Aqueduct and have different groups run Belmont and Saratoga.

In two recent meetings, one with the editors of the upstate Troy Record newspaper last month and another with Queens legislators last week, Spitzer said his advisers have questioned the need for two downstate tracks. Audrey Pheffer, an assemblywoman from Queens County whose district includes Aqueduct, told The Saratogian newspaper that Spitzer asked at Wednesday's meeting about development options for Aqueduct, "What's the difference if horses are running there or not?"

Consolidating 46 weeks a year of downstate racing at Belmont is one of those bad ideas that pops up every few years, then quickly disappears when someone besides real estate developers and politicians is asked whether it would work. If and when the Spitzer administration ever consults such people, it will learn the answer is no.

First of all, the cost of winterizing Belmont may well exceed the value of the entire franchise. The massive building faces due north, which keeps the sun out of your eyes in the summer and fall but turns the place into a frozen, shadowy fortress in winter. Enclosing and heating the place is impractical and prohibitively expensive, and the historic and popular racing surfaces would have to be replaced. Furthermore, Belmont alone does not have enough stables to support year-round racing, which requires the additional stalls and training facilities of Aqueduct.

Having different operators for the state's tracks is an equally untenable proposition, and it was summarily rejected by all of the franchise bidders and the Ad Hoc Committee that heard the first round of bids a year ago. The entire point of forming a New York Racing Association 52 years ago was to unite the state's tracks into an efficient, single circuit, and it works. Installing competing and duplicative management groups would achieve nothing but waste and chaos, a mistake New York made when it created six regional offtrack betting corporations rather than a single entity 35 years ago.

The scariest part of these proposals is that they are surfacing so late in a process in which they have already been briefly considered and roundly rejected. It reflects a thorough lack of seriousness and purpose to Spitzer's historic opportunity to right the industry's course, and an alarming lack of consultation and advice from anyone with racing experience and knowledge.

NYRA betting site a welcome addition

In the midst of all the confusion surrounding its own future, NYRA has quietly launched an Internet wagering service that, for once, makes New York horseplayers the envy of their brethren nationwide: an online extension of its NYRA One telephone-account service offering a slick interface, a rewards program, and access to every major signal - including those from Churchill Downs and Magna tracks as well as those disseminated exclusively by the Television Games Network.

It's not any faster than picking up the phone and barking out your tickets, but some players will like the privacy and relative calm of typing in their wagers onscreen, as well as the option of printing out a hard-copy receipt of each ticket. The multi-race bet interface, far superior to those on self-service machines at the track, is particularly helpful for mapping out wagers.

A few suggestions: The base amount for wagers should default to $1 rather than $2, since that is the unit used in the vast majority of exotic bets, and there needs to be a "repeat" button so people can buy a $1 ticket more than once instead of repunching the entire wager. Most importantly, the NYRA needs to implement the electronic-commerce options of the other online wagering services that allow instantaneous transfer of personal funds at no fee. Currently accounts can be funded away from the track only by either waiting several days for a personal check to clear or by paying a hefty surcharge to a credit-card company.