12/17/2007 12:00AM

NYRA mulls temporary deal

EmailA state agency that oversees the New York Racing Association authorized the agency's top official on Monday to strike a temporary deal with NYRA to allow NYRA to continue to run the state's three major Thoroughbred tracks next year in the absence of a formal legislative agreement.

The five members of the Non-Profit Racing Association Oversight Board gave unanimous approval to Carole Stone, the chairwoman of the panel, to negotiate a temporary operating permit with NYRA if representatives of the governor and the legislature are unable to reach a formal agreement either to extend NYRA's franchise - which expires at the end of this year - or select a new operator for Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga.

In a statement, NYRA's chairman, Steven Duncker, said that the association is "reviewing the resolution . . . to determine a course of action."

The association is currently in negotiations for a legislative extension with representatives of Gov. Eliot Spitzer and leaders of the Senate and Assembly.

"NYRA remains confident that an agreed memorandum of understanding and legislation will be achieved," Duncker said. "NYRA will continue to work cooperatively toward that end." Duncker declined further comment.

The move by the oversight board comes as negotiations over the franchise have picked up in pace the past week. By authorizing a temporary deal, the board has offered an alternative to shutting down racing at the end of the year if no legislative deal is approved. Also, the offer appeared to provide some political cover for opponents of a legislative agreement, which is supported by Spitzer and Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the state Assembly, both of whom are Democrats. A legislative agreement requires the approval of the governor and both the Democratic-led Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate.

The oversight board was created in 2005 by former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, who selected three of its five members. A fourth member, Joseph Torani, was selected by the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, the powerful Republican who has led the opposition to a long-term extension of NYRA's franchise. The fifth oversight board member, Madelyn Wils, was selected by Silver.

NYRA officials have long maintained that NYRA is the rightful owner of the racetrack properties, a contention disputed by the state. NYRA is currently operating under the protection of a bankruptcy court, and the association's attorneys have contended that if a legislative deal is not reached, the association and the court would likely block an attempt by the state to authorize a new operator of the tracks.

Representatives of Spitzer and Bruno have discussed the possibility of a temporary extension while legislators try to work out a franchise deal, but NYRA officials have resisted that approach, saying they would not accept a temporary extension unless broad terms of a long-range deal had already been accepted by the legislature. If a deal is not in place, NYRA officials have suggested that the tracks might have to close as of Jan. 1 because of the uncertainty surrounding the ownership claims.

Under state law, the oversight board has the right to run racing if a franchise agreement is not in place. If NYRA officials were to reject a temporary operating permit from the oversight board, they might be left in the awkward position of defending a shutdown of racing.

The basis of negotiations for a legislative franchise agreement is a memorandum of understanding approved by Spitzer and NYRA that would extend NYRA's franchise for 30 years in exchange for the state taking uncontested title to the racetracks. Bruno has resisted that plan in favor of a shorter extension and the creation of a new state agency that would play a role in NYRA's operations.

Officials involved in the negotiations said on Monday that talks continued over the weekend but that no deal had been reached. The Senate held a two-day session on Thursday and Friday but did not address the franchise issue. The two houses of the legislature are not scheduled to go back into session until Jan. 9.