02/07/2008 12:00AM

NYRA deal not yet done


The shutdown of racing at Aqueduct on Feb. 14 still loomed as a possibility on Thursday despite the insistence of Joseph Bruno, the state senate majority leader, that a long-term franchise extension for the New York Racing Association was close at hand, officials involved in negotiations said.

Representatives from Bruno's office and officials with the staffs of Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the assembly, met on Wednesday night to discuss a deal offered by Bruno that would extend the franchise for 25 years. As of Thursday, Silver's staff had not signed off on the agreement, and officials at NYRA said the agreement contained several provisions that the association would not accept.

The association's franchise to conduct racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga expired on Dec. 31, and it has been conducting racing on a short-term extension approved by a state oversight panel. The last day of the short-term extension is Feb. 13, and negotiations on a long-term agreement have been going on since early December without success.

Late Wednesday and again on Thursday, Bruno said that he believed a deal was imminent, and he characterized NYRA's threat to shut down as "scare tactics." NYRA informed its employees and horsemen on Wednesday that the association would need to lay off most of its 1,300 full-time workers and empty its backstretches by Feb. 27 if a shutdown occurred.

NYRA's chief executive, Charles Hayward, took issue with Bruno's characterization, contending that NYRA had a responsibility to inform its employees of the association's plans in the event of a shutdown.

"You can't wait until the last minute, like Albany always wants to do, without informing people of what they need to do to prepare," Hayward said.

Hayward declined to answer questions about NYRA's opposition to the Bruno deal, saying, "The senator has a propensity to negotiate in the press, and in a matter as delicate as this, I don't think that's a good strategy."

NYRA has blamed Bruno, a Republican, for blocking a deal reached in September among NYRA, Spitzer, and Silver that would have extended NYRA's franchise for 30 years in exchange for the association granting the state undisputed title to the racetracks, which NYRA officials have long contended belong to the association. Spitzer and Silver are Democrats.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Bruno, said on Thursday that the 25-year extension is part of a "framework that everyone essentially agrees on."

NYRA officials said privately, however, that the Bruno deal contained a number of provisions that the association opposed, including language that required a supermajority vote for any decision by the NYRA board. Under the Bruno plan, NYRA would appoint 11 directors to a 21-member board while government officials would appoint 10 members. The officials said that the deal, contained in a 178-page draft version of a bill, needed a thorough reading.

Bruno's office declined to make the draft legislation public.

Bruno is under pressure by his constituents in upstate New York to deliver a deal to keep racing going. Bruno represents Saratoga Springs, the site of Saratoga Race Course. Last week, a NYRA director and prominent Republican businessman from Saratoga, Charles Wait, resigned from the NYRA board to criticize publicly Bruno's role in the negotiations. Many businesses in Saratoga are eager to get the franchise situation resolved because of the significant impact of the Saratoga meet on the local economy.