08/03/2006 11:00PM

Odd couple in New York bid


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The second-most interesting thing that former National Thoroughbred Racing Association commissioner Tim Smith said at Tuesday's Albany Law School forum on racing - after confirming that he is indeed an investor in the Empire Racing Associates group seeking the New York Racing Association franchise - was that the entire bidding process was likely to create some unusual and unexpected alliances in the racing world.

It took just 72 hours for that prediction to come true, as Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment Corp. announced Friday that they are joining forces to bid for the NYRA franchise.

Whether or not their effort results in a winning bid, the alliance of the rival public companies could end up being very good news for horseplayers across the country, even those with little interest in playing Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga.

Churchill and Magna, which have acquired a combined 18 tracks over the last decade, have spent much of their time at each other's throats competing in markets where they now control most of the action.

While in theory competition might benefit their customers, in practice it has created unconscionable inconvenience for patrons, primarily in the areas of account wagering and access to simulcast signals. Customers have had to sign up for different cable and satellite television packages and open separate betting accounts just to keep playing the races when the action moves across town.

The two companies have insisted on going their separate ways, trying to build value by creating proprietary simulcast and betting networks, but realized that strategy would not work when legal changes in England opened a window to import American racing there earlier this year. The two companies became partners in Racing World, which sends signals from both Churchill and Magna tracks into homes in England and Ireland. Now, with the franchise-related partnership, perhaps Churchill and Magna can continue working together and treat customers in the United States as well as the ones in the United Kingdom.

It's unclear who else might end up being part of the Churchill-Magna bid for NYRA. Frank Stronach, Magna's chairman, said as part of Friday's joint announcement, "It is not the goal of either MEC or CDI to control New York racing. Our intention is to provide our companies' collective expertise to a bid group comprised of prominent New York enterprises and others with the capability and desire to win the franchise." The tricky part is that two of the leading bidders, Empire and NYRA, have made frequent and pointed reference to their belief that the franchise should be awarded to a New York-based group rather than out-of-state entities such as Churchill and Magna. Whether this leaves enough wiggle room to include the new alliance as a partner remains to be seen.

Statebreds all over the place

The second-most frequent comment about what seems different about the racing at Saratoga this year, after the intense heat that caused the first full-card cancellation in at least 66 years here Wednesday, is the startling increase in the number of New York-bred races. NYRA is on track to run roughly 800 such restricted races this year, up from 622 in 2005 and nearly double what there were four years ago. Roughly one-third of all NYRA races are now for statebreds only. Statebred maiden-claiming races and third-level allowance conditions have been added this year, as well as an optional-claiming twist to the allowance ranks that allows multiple restricted winners to continue competing against statebreds.

Whether this is improving or detracting from the quality of New York racing is debatable. By the numbers, these races often attract bigger fields and more handle than the smaller open allowance and claiming races they are replacing. Aesthetically, however, one field after another of hapless career maidens trying the grass (or being rained off it) can lead to cards that don't exactly feel like the world-class racing that is supposed to be Saratoga's hallmark. Some prominent trainers, including Bill Mott, have complained about the reduced opportunities for open-company horses and proposed that statebreds be rewarded more strongly for success in open races rather than being subsidized for continuing to compete in restricted races.

There is a strong political overtone to the expansion of statebred racing, as there is to nearly every aspect of the game in New York these days. NYRA, and every other bidder for the franchise, needs the blessing of New York's breeders and their clout with the upstate politicians who will be voting on the next franchisee when the legislature reconvenes in 2007. Doubling the opportunities for these breeders to collect purses, as well as increasing the value of the New York-breds they sell at auction because of the expansion of earnings opportunities, is clearly part of that effort - and a continuation of it is a cinch to be part of every bidder's proposal.