07/22/2004 12:00AM

NYRA tries for a turnaround


NEW YORK - The announcement last week that Tim Smith is likely to resign as commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to become the chief executive of the New York Racing Association says a lot about the recent history and future prospects of both organizations.

Smith had been widely considered a possibility to depart the NTRA for some time now, having accomplished his primary goal as the founding commissioner: gently herding the feral cats who operate American racing into at least tolerating a national marketing and lobbying alliance.

There is a growing sense in the industry that while it's far better to have such an alliance than not, the NTRA may have little room to expand. Initial expectations that it could be a powerful league office organizing and controlling the sport have been proven unrealistic in a highly combative industry, where individual eccentricity and parochial self-interest consistently trump true collaboration for the greater good of the game.

Many tracks and industry organizations have made financial commitments to the NTRA through the end of 2005, and it is questionable how many will renew at the same level of support. The NTRA's merger with Breeders' Cup has assured its economic survival, but it is difficult to see its role or operations growing beyond serving the few common goals on which racing's warring organizations and constituent groups can agree. Depending on whether you view glasses as half empty or half full, the NTRA to date can be considered either something of a disappointment or a limited but legitimate success in achieving promotional goals and creating a needed national trade group.

If the commissioner thought herding the national cats was a challenge, wait until Mr. Smith goes to Albany, where he is sure to be spending a lot of his time trying to tame and charm the politicians who ultimately run the game in New York. Neither he nor NYRA officials will comment on his situation until his deal is completed, but it is clear that he is not being hired to rewrite the Belmont stakes schedule or renegotiate with the ice-cream vendors at Saratoga.

"Tim's not taking the job because he wants to run racetracks," said one of his closest colleagues. "He's going there to get two things done: Get the slots up and running, and get the franchise renewed."

For those goals - overcoming the political hurdles to finishing construction of a video-lottery facility at Aqueduct and extending NYRA's existence past its current sunset date of 2007 - NYRA may have made an inspired choice. Smith is above all a skilled facilitator and diplomat, and his appointment sends a message that NYRA is ready to emerge from its recent history as a political punching bag and victim and work professionally and collaboratively going forward.

Though a stable franchise and slots-enhanced purses may be the most important goals for New York racing, they are long-term projects that will provide little immediate benefit to customers.

Despite its legal and financial troubles, NYRA's racing product has remained excellent, and its aggressive pursuit of takeout reductions under Barry Schwartz's leadership is commendable. The ontrack experience, however, remains a weak one in need of remedy well before 2007. The facilities are poorly set up for the simulcasting era, and New York trails the nation in customer incentives and rewards.

It is hard to blame NYRA officials for not successfully addressing these issues recently, given the bizarre and oppressive way in which it has been forced to operate. Executives cannot even conduct conference calls or attend legitimate industry functions without being accompanied and monitored by court-appointed nanny lawyers it must pay. This inane arrangement, which runs another year under a deferred-prosecution agreement, is somehow supposed to address the fact that some mutuel tellers used to bet out of the till and fib on their personal tax returns.

Smith's arrival needs to mean an end to the paralysis that has gripped NYRA for the last two years and the start of solutions to immediate customer issues as well as long-range political goals. Smith is better equipped for that task now than he was before his five-year education at the NTRA. As he saw more of the business, he visibly evolved into an advocate for the customers as well as the muckety-mucks, and he was a strong supporter of the NTRA Players' Panel and its recommendations.

For NYRA to earn a renewal of its franchise, it must not only make progress in the back rooms of Albany. It must also prove by its actions that it will truly serve the public interest as well as pursue its own survival.