08/23/2006 11:00PM

NYRA calls for horsemen to help get slots going

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Officials of the New York Racing Association implored horsemen at a meeting on Thursday in the Saratoga paddock to put political pressure on Gov. George Pataki to approve the association's slot-machine project at Aqueduct racetrack, but the plea's impact was diluted by the acrimony that continues to plague the relationship between the two groups.

NYRA president Charles Hayward, speaking to approximately 75 owners and trainers who showed up for the morning meeting, said that NYRA has faced inexplicable delays in getting approval for the project from Gov. Pataki's office, and called on horsemen to present a united front with NYRA to lobby the governor for the approvals. Hayward contended that if slots were in operation at Aqueduct, NYRA's purses would be $190,000 higher per day, and the state would be reaping $1.2 million daily.

"What's being perpetrated on us and the state of New York is really a crime," Hayward said. Later, Hayward said that he did not mean "to be inflammatory, but the racing industry is getting screwed."

NYRA's call for a unified front did not appear to have an impact on the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, whose president, Richard Bomze, said that horsemen would lobby Gov. Pataki separately from NYRA when Pataki visits Saratoga on Friday and Saturday. Bomze said that the horsemen had not scheduled a formal meeting with Pataki.

"He usually shows up over here by the paddock, and we'll sit down with him and talk about the situation and I'll buy him a hot dog," Bomze said.

NYRA has been at odds with the board of the horsemen's association since March, when the horsemen's board gave its exclusive approval to Empire Racing Associates for Empire's bid to take over NYRA's franchise. Empire was formed by a group of New York business and political leaders - including the former head of New York's state lottery corporation, Jeff Perlee - and has since signed on as partners a diverse array of racing companies, including Churchill Downs Inc., Magna Entertainment Corp., Delaware North, Woodbine Entertainment Group, and Scientific Games Inc.

Slot machines at Aqueduct were first approved in 2001, but plans to install the machines at Aqueduct stalled under disagreements over the law and a constitutional challenge. In the summer of 2005, the legislature passed a law allowing NYRA to go ahead with the project in partnership with MGM Grand, the casino company, but legal and financial difficulties further delayed construction.

NYRA is still waiting on the approval of its management agreement with MGM by the lottery corporation and the approval of a debt-subordination agreement with the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation by a state oversight board before it can begin construction at Aqueduct on a facility holding 4,500 slot machines. Both of those agencies are overseen by Pataki.

Though NYRA officials will not comment specifically on why they believe the approvals have stalled, their comments indicate that they believe the approvals are being delayed in order to damage the association's bid to retain its franchise by denying the association a lucrative revenue stream. NYRA's franchise to operate the casino and three racetracks - Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga - expires on Dec. 31, 2007, and a state committee is currently soliciting bids to take over the tracks.

NYRA has had a variety of legal and financial problems over the past four years. In 2003, the association accepted a deferred-prosecution agreement to avoid an indictment on money-laundering and fraud charges. Late in 2005, the association threatened to declare bankruptcy as part of a plan to obtain a $30 million loan agreement from the state to keep the association afloat through this year's Saratoga meet.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Gov. Pataki, said on Thursday that "the division of lottery and the oversight board continue to do their review of NYRA's plan" for the casino. Asked to respond to NYRA's suggestions that the delays were political in nature, Reif said: "We're concerned that NYRA continues to call for a short-circuiting of the normal review process."

Reif said the approvals for NYRA had taken longer than other racetracks that have begun slot-machine operations because of NYRA's "many fiscal, legal, and financial difficulties over the years." He also said that NYRA has so far submitted all of the required paperwork to gain the approvals, but that the oversight board may need additional materials that could delay the go-ahead even further.

Steve Duncker, the chairman of NYRA, acknowledged the strained relationship with the horsemen's association, and said after the meeting that he would privately ask the horsemen to meet with Pataki in concert with NYRA. But he said that a partnership would not necessarily be essential to get the slot-machine project up and running.

"If there's any issue we're going to have a good relationship on, it's this one," Duncker said. "We need to come at government from two directions, so they need to work their channels, and we need to work through our channels, and hopefully it will work out for the best."