03/14/2008 12:00AM

NYRA safe without Spitzer


NEW YORK - Only a week ago, it seemed that Feb. 13 would be remembered in the political career of Eliot Spitzer as the day that the future of New York Thoroughbred racing was finally settled.

The archives will show that the governor's office issued four press releases that afternoon, the last and longest of which celebrated bills passed earlier in the day renewing the New York Racing Association's franchise for 25 years. Only a day earlier, NYRA employees had demonstrated on the steps of the state capitol, urging legislators to avoid a scheduled shutdown of racing that was averted by less than 24 hours.

"Today we have reached an agreement that represents the best vision for the future of the horse racing industry, and will ensure that operations at these tracks will continue uninterrupted and have the financial resources they need," Spitzer said in his final public statement of Feb. 13.

Unfortunately for Spitzer, his day did not end there. He flew to Washington to attend a hearing the next morning, but first, according to a federal indictment, capped off his busy day with a $4,300 assignation with a prostitute at the Mayflower Hotel. Spitzer had made seven cell-phone calls to the escort service that day as he darted between press conferences and spoke about the future of New York racing.

It turns out that law-enforcement officials were monitoring those calls, as part of an investigation Spitzer himself had touched off months earlier through a series of unusual cash withdrawals and wire transfers to the escort service's money-laundering shell corporation. Four operators of the service were arrested and charged March 7, and three days later Spitzer was identified as "Client No. 9" of the Feb. 13 calls and meeting. He has not disputed the charges and on March 12 announced his resignation, which will take effect Monday.

So where does that leave New York racing?

The very good news is that the bills renewing the NYRA franchise were actually passed on fateful Feb. 13. If there had merely been an agreement in principle with the details to be sorted out later, we could be back to square one. NYRA is still operating under a temporary extension of its old franchise, which expires April 27, but only because the real-estate technicalities of transferring the tracks' deeds to the state have not been completed. There is no reason to think that Spitzer's departure, and the installation of Lt. Gov. David Paterson, should disrupt that largely clerical process.

On the downside, other pending racing issues are likely to go even further to the rear of a long line of legislative priorities that are now going to be addressed more slowly amid the transitional chaos.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last month announced a plan to shutter the NYC Offtrack Betting Corporation on June 13 unless the state changes revenue splits to put higher profits in OTB's coffers. Bloomberg's plan was an insincere pressure tactic and would be fiscally devastating to the city and the racing industry, but now he's stuck with his own fake deadline.

Then there's the matter of choosing an operator for the Aqueduct racino, which Spitzer had promised would be done by March 12, which turned out to be the day of his resignation. The field appeared to have narrowed to two, but that process is now sure to be delayed and eligible to be reopened. So the long-anticipated slots money, needed to refurbish the tracks and raise purses, is again a distant pot of gold instead of a looming savior.

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange broke into applause when the Spitzer story broke last Monday. It wasn't just because he had built his career on zealously prosecuting Wall Streeters for sometimes borderline ethical transgressions, but because he had always seemed to twist the knife in triumph, humiliating his targets by leading them away in handcuffs.

There were more than a few smiles around the racetrack as well at the news of his downfall. Spitzer took those same vindictive extra steps in his aggressive attacks against NYRA, ruining the careers of racing officials in a case ultimately laughed out of court, and demanding jail time for a mutuels supervisor who had looked the other way at low-level tax-code violations by tellers.

"Over the course of my public life, I have insisted, I believe correctly, that people, regardless of their position or power, take responsibility for their conduct," Spitzer said Wednesday in his resignation speech. It will be interesting to see whether prosecutors are as insistent as Spitzer claimed to be about following the letter of the law - such as the one Spitzer lobbied for and signed last fall, increasing the maximum jail sentence for patronizing a prostitute from 90 days to a year.