08/03/2006 12:00AM

Only NYRA had the goods


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The current Battle of Saratoga is the battle for Saratoga, Aqueduct, and Belmont and the franchise to operate them beginning in 2008. The first formal skirmish was this past Tuesday's annual Albany Law School racing forum, where three of the leading bidders for the franchise made their first public presentations of why they should be given the keys to the tracks.

These are very early days in a process that probably has a hundred twists and turns ahead and could well start over next year. Remarks at a conference will not win the day. If Tuesday's initial faceoff had been a prizefight, however, it would have been stopped. That's how much stronger one of the presentations was than the other two.

First up was Excelsior Racing Associates, a group headed up by Steve Swindal, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's son-in-law and designated successor. Their newly hired spokesman, the retired jockey Jerry Bailey, read a brief script that amounted to a string of clich?s about making racing as great as the Yankees, without a single indication of how to do so or what might be wrong with the current operation. Bailey has been excellent in his fledgling new career as a television racing analyst, consistently smart and candid, but he seemed completely wooden Tuesday delivering nearly meaningless remarks.

(On Thursday, Excelsior announced the hiring of two more advisers, the trainer Gary Contessa and the veterinarian and former racing official Jerry Bilinski. Their comments in an Excelsior press release were similarly jolly and devoid of substance.)

Next up on Tuesday came Jeff Perlee, the chief executive of Empire Racing Associates, the group of upstate businessmen who like to call themselves "the horsemen's group" because they secured the endorsement of the board of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, a trade group. Perlee was amiable but also offered no specifics and stressed just two themes.

First, he said he had a "revelation" at the Big Red Spring last summer that horsemen should be involved in the operation of racing, not exactly an idea anyone disagrees with. He also said that Empire loves working with state officials, unlike some other unnamed groups, and even claimed that the citizens of New York passionately demand as much bureaucratic involvement as possible in the administration of racing. This rather curious assertion appeared aimed at the numerous government employees in the audience.

The final speaker was C. Steven Duncker, the New York Racing Association's previously low-profile chairman but now clearly its public leader in its attempt to retain the franchise. Rather than delivering general remarks, Duncker made a charts-and-graphs presentation that crisply addressed the issues that have been swirling around NYRA in recent years. He documented the overhaul of NYRA's governance structure, the steps it has taken to ensure management integrity, and the change in attitude among political leaders who were demanding NYRA's head on a pike two years ago but now seem satisfied with its operation.

Duncker also specifically addressed the underlying question of the entire franchise-renewal process: Will racing be better served by a not-for-profit entity such as NYRA, or by the privately held, for-profit models every other bidder is proposing? This is the primary decision the next governor and legislature will have to make regardless of whatever recommendation the current lame-duck governor and his appointees make before leaving office. Duncker argued that the tracks providing the best racing and biggest purses are largely nonprofits, such as the NYRA tracks, Del Mar, and Keeneland.

It is now up to the other bidders to argue the other side of the case instead of simply mouthing platitudes and currying favor with politicians. The for-profit models being discussed and circulated call for a return to private investors on the order of $50 million to $100 million a year. What exactly will these groups do to increase business so significantly that this much money can be taken away from government and out of racing without hurting both? There may well be some sort of an argument to be made that a for-profit operator might be in a better position to make needed capital investments, but no one is articulating that case, nor has NYRA addressed how it will fund such improvements from its currently impoverished coffers.

The answers to these and most other questions probably lie in the largely unspoken factor that is in fact the sole reason this franchise has suddenly become so popular: the video-lottery (aka slot-machine) concession that will begin at Aqueduct next year and probably spread to Belmont soon thereafter. Is it entirely a coincidence that there were no bidders for the tracks beyond NYRA the four times the franchise has been renewed since 1955, but with slots on the horizon there are suddenly as many as 15 groups deeply concerned about the future of horse racing in New York?