05/31/2006 11:00PM

NYRA meets with horsemen


ELMONT, N.Y. - Officials of the New York Racing Association met with horsemen on Thursday to trumpet the many changes that have led to an increase in business this year, but it is clear there is still discord between management and horsemen.

At least that was the sentiment of some of the horsemen who attended a 70-minute meeting at Belmont Park that touched on a wide range of issues.

"My perception is there's a tremendous disconnect in what goes on in the boardroom and the reality at the rail," said Marty Cunningham, who owns about 10 or 12 horses and who is also a major horseplayer.

"I can guarantee you that this board of trustees is working very hard on behalf of the industry, and I'm proud to be the chairman," said C. Stephen Duncker, NYRA's chairman.

Duncker and NYRA's CEO and president, Charles Hayward, made a presentation to horsemen that touched on many facets, including the current bump in business and the future of the franchise.

Through the first five months of the year, daily average handle on NYRA's races has increased by 4.7 percent, and daily average ontrack handle has increased by 7.7 percent. Attendance is down 8.2 percent.

Duncker and Hayward showed how the average daily purse payouts have increased slightly from 2005. NYRA has run 100 days of racing this year, compared with 104 to this point in 2005.

NYRA maintains the franchise to run racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga through Dec. 31, 2007. During the presentation, Duncker contended that a not-for-profit entity such as NYRA, combined with a strategic partner that has racing's interests at heart, would be a greater benefit to horsemen as a potential future franchise holder than a for-profit entity. He said, for example, that the revenue contract NYRA has with horsemen for the not-yet-started video lottery terminal project is better than the contract proposed by the Friends of New York Racing or the one projected for Gulfstream's impending slots project by Magna Entertainment, a company also believed to be interested in the NYRA franchise.

Though the Friends of New York Racing has dissolved, it has gained a second life in the form of Empire Racing Association, a group of horsemen who plan to bid on the franchise. Terry Finley, who heads the West Point Stable and is on the board of Empire Racing, attended Thursday's meeting and tried to explain to Duncker that Empire was a separate entity from Friends of New York Racing.

"We're not looking to fight, we're not looking to battle, we're looking to make sure our interests are looked after," Finley said after the meeting. "Year in, year out, horsemen make a bigger investment than anybody involved in the racing business.

"No one knows what's going to happen over the next year or two, but we feel very confident the horsemen, through the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, and the ERA, are doing everything we can to make sure our interests are aligned with whoever wins the final bid," he said.

Part of the reason for the increased business is that NYRA has been running more races for New York-breds, which typically have larger fields than open-company allowance races. In fact, Hayward estimated that NYRA is on course to run 800 New York-bred races this year, up from 722 run in 2005 and 642 run in 2004.

That has caused some issues for horsemen such as Todd Pletcher and Bobby Frankel, who have been frustrated this summer by races failing to fill. While both men attended Thursday's meeting, neither spoke. Pletcher did talk privately with Hayward and Duncker afterward.

"I wanted to make sure they're aware that Belmont and Saratoga need to be treated differently than winter racing at Aqueduct," Pletcher said.

Hayward admitted that racing secretary P.J. Campo has been instructed to use races with bigger fields, but added that he needs to be flexible.

"P.J.'s instructions are to maximize field size and to run competitive racing," Hayward said. "But he's got to feel empowered that when he has a five-horse field, to let that race go rather than go with a claimer with 10 or 12 horses."

There continues to be disagreement over the use of the security barn, which management implemented last year. Management said it had only anecdotal evidence that suggests the barns have been successful in curbing illegal drug use. Horsemen, however, wondered if anything has really changed and complained about the added expense of having to have a groom stay with a horse for six hours.

"It has had an impact," Duncker said. "The impact is worth it, though this is more of an impression than a well-founded fact."

Scott Schwartz, who is based at Aqueduct, disagreed.

"I don't think the results stand by what you tried to do," Schwartz said. "You're putting pressure on people that work hard enough as it is to work even harder."

Trainer David Donk praised NYRA "for having the guts" to institute the barn and told his fellow horsemen, "We can whine and complain about it, but it's not going anywhere."

In discussing the video lottery terminal project, Duncker said "there has been a morass of red tape" to navigate. Duncker said all that is needed to restart the project is the state lottery's approval to subordinate the loans, something he hopes will happen within two weeks. No timetable was given, however, for the start of construction on a slots casino at Aqueduct.

Prado will ride Cacique in Manhattan

Edgar Prado will ride Cacique in the Grade 1, $400,000 Manhattan Handicap on Belmont Stakes day, trainer Bobby Frankel said Thursday.

Cacique was a hard-luck loser in two Grade 1 races this year when ridden by Patrick Valenzuela. Frankel said that Valenzuela is riding King's Drama for him in a race at Hollywood Park that day.

Cacique was beaten a neck when fourth in the Grade 1 Kilroe Handicap at Santa Anita in March and was beaten a half-length after a troubled start in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

"He's been unlucky the last two races," Frankel said.

On Thursday, Cacique worked five furlongs in 1:00.71 on the dirt. He worked in company with Racketeer, who may run in the Woody Stephens Breeders' Cup on the same day.