08/10/2001 12:00AM

N.Y. racing: My kingdom for a plan


Everyone seems to have an opinion about who should run New York's racetracks and New York City's offtrack betting network. Frank Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment submitted a "winning" bid for OTB in a sale unlikely to be approved, has now broadened his horizon and says he also wants to run Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. He thinks the "clubbiness" needs to be removed from the power structure and that the game needs "jazzing up." The allegedly clubby and unjazzy New York Racing Association wants to keep control of the tracks and add OTB to its portfolio. Its chairman, Barry Schwartz, said this week that New York racing under Stronach's control would be a "colossal mistake" and "a horror show."

The rhetoric has been lively, a distraction from the heat wave paralyzing Saratoga, but it's hard to see how anyone without self-interest in the matter can have an intelligent opinion. To have one of those you need some facts and some plans, two things entirely absent from the OTB sales process and the posturing over the NYRA franchise.

When New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani named the Magna partnership as the winning bidder for OTB, he called the decision a "no brainer" solely because he believes Magna's offer was more lucrative. He didn't even bother to pay cynical lip service to the notion of public policy. Is cold cash the extent of the mayor's concern for the racing industry and its employees, and the horseplayer citizens of the city? Perhaps Magna is indeed the worthiest bidder, but a responsible decision should have involved more than weighing bags of money.

Instead of running the process as if it were selling off seized merchandise, the city should have held public hearings, appointed an impartial panel to study other OTB systems around the country, and asked the bidders tough questions, demanding a strategic plan as well as a bid. What was anybody's actual blueprint for OTB? Would there still be a surcharge? Would more money be funneled to race purses, or end up on some public company's bottom line? Would more parlors be closed in favor of teletheaters? Would there be free-market simulcasting, or preferred and protected status for NYRA racing?

Not one of these questions was ever addressed in public, if at all, by the city or the bidders. Perhaps this is appropriate, since the whole sale process was a bad-faith sham. It is unclear that the city ever had the authority to sell off OTB, and it's odds-on that either the City Council or state legislators will quash the whole thing anyway. The bidders will end up having wasted a lot of time and money that could have been better spent on their customers or their racing operations.

If anything good can come of this, it is in the way of instruction for how not to conduct the process when the NYRA franchise comes up for renewal in a few years. That is the appropriate time to do something about OTB by rolling on- and off-track operations together as they should have been 30 years ago.

It's not acceptable for the debate to be limited to name-calling and the verdict to be reached on purely economic grounds. Both Stronach and NYRA need to develop and articulate a comprehensive vision and plan for the future of racing in New York. By then, Stronach's record at his growing portfolio of tracks can and should be evaluated along with the performance of its partner, Greenwood Racing, in operating OTB's in Pennsylvania. NYRA, which has taken a number of commendably fan-friendly steps in recent months, can argue its case and elaborate a plan that goes beyond fulfilling its sense of entitlement and enriching horse owners. It can also spell out what it would actually do with OTB instead of saying, as it did this time around, that it would probably just let one of its inexperienced bidding partners worry about that.

"I want a fair process where everyone is out in the open and says this is what we will pay for NYRA," Stronach said this week.

He's right about a fair and open process but there's a bigger question than price: what will be best for the customers who pay the bills, the industry participants who put on the show, and the sport of racing itself?

"Let the best man win," said Stronach.

Fine. But next time let's find out who that really is.