07/14/2005 12:00AM

NYRA shakes up its staff


ELMONT, N.Y. - Charles Hayward, the president and CEO of the New York Racing Association, announced four major personnel changes Thursday intended to give the beleaguered franchise a "fresh approach."

Hayward fired racing secretary and handicapper Mike Lakow, chief examining veterinarian Dr. Celeste Kunz, and vice president of human resources and labor relations Ralph Chetcuti. NYRA steward David Hicks, 76, retired.

Lakow was replaced by P.J. Campo, NYRA's assistant racing secretary and handicapper, and Kunz was replaced by Dr. Anthony Verderosa, a staff veterinarian.

A replacement for Chetcuti, who joined NYRA in 2002, will be named in the future. Hicks's position will be filled on an interim basis by NYRA racing officials.

Hayward took over eight months ago with NYRA under intense scrutiny. The franchise's operations are monitored by the law firm of Getnick and Getnick under a deferred prosecution agreement reached on Dec. 10, 2003, after NYRA was indicted on tax fraud charges and fined $3 million for helping mutuel clerks evade income tax.

The moves - the first major personnel shakeup under Hayward - came only days before the start of NYRA's most important meet, Saratoga, which opens July 27.

"It's my responsibility to evaluate the whole organization and the different departments," Hayward said. "There are issues with each of the individuals involved. I am not going to comment on personnel decisions."

Hayward said there were no integrity issues with the dismissed staff, who were escorted from the grounds by security personnel Thursday morning. He declined to be more specific but said there was no linkage or common thread among the moves.

"There were different issues with each of the people involved," Hayward said.

Asked about the possibility of more changes, Hayward said that he did not anticipate any dismissals on the level of those announced Thursday. "This was well thought out over a period of time, and you can never say never," Hayward said.

Lakow was the most prominent dismissal. Regarded as one of the country's top racing secretaries, Lakow was responsible for the overall racing product. He supervised the stakes program and overnight races and assigned stalls to horsemen at NYRA's three tracks.

Lakow joined NYRA in 1991 and was named assistant racing secretary in 1994. He became racing secretary at Aqueduct and Belmont Park in 1995 while Howard Battle served as the Saratoga's racing secretary. Lakow eventually gained responsibility for all three tracks.

Kunz joined NYRA in 1994 and was appointed chief examining veterinarian in 2003, the first woman to hold the position at NYRA. She was responsible for safeguarding the soundness of horses racing at NYRA and took a leading role in helping control and isolate a suspected strangles outbreak at Belmont in the spring.

Hayward came on board with the clock ticking on the NYRA franchise to operate the three tracks. The franchise expires in 2007, and a host of racing and gambling companies, including NYRA, are expected to compete for control of the tracks, which will include a slots casino at Aqueduct. The state legislature determines who will operate the tracks.

NYRA has been a frequent target of New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer and state comptroller Alan Hevesi, both of whom have issued stinging reports about NYRA's management practices before Hayward's arrival. In another blow to the NYRA franchise, trainer Greg Martin was indicted on charges of fraud and conspiracy last winter for using banned alkalizing agents on a horse at Aqueduct in December 2003 in connection with an illegal gambling ring.

Last spring, Hayward implemented a security-barn system to isolate all horses scheduled to race six hours before race time.

"This is all part of the process of evaluating what our practices are and how people do what they're doing," Hayward said of the personnel moves Thursday. "When I came here in November, I talked about making changes. This was not something decided on July 13th and announced on July 14th."