03/01/2007 12:00AM

Place your bets on New York's future

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NEW YORK - It took nearly two years for the New York racing franchise issue to reach its inevitable destination: Square One. That's where things now officially stand after Wednesday's announcement by Gov. Eliot Spitzer that he is convening a new panel to assess both existing and possible new bids for the New York Racing Association's franchise, which expires Dec. 31.

In the spirit of Churchill Downs's Kentucky Derby Future Wager, it's time to open the pools for a NYRA Future Wager. Listed below are the seven scenarios in the running, with comments and morning-line odds.

NYRA (2-1)

The incumbent has a few things going for it with the new governor. When Spitzer was attorney general, he demanded internal reforms that NYRA has met or exceeded, and he favors NYRA's not-for-profit structure in theory. NYRA also has the very big chip of its claim to ownership of the track properties, which might be surrendered in exchange for a long-term renewal.

On the downside, NYRA is staggering to the finish line amid bankruptcy and dismal winter racing, and has yet to articulate its case for renewal in a compelling way.

Capital Play (100-1)

Capital Play Ltd., an Australian consortium, submitted a limited bid to the Ad Hoc Committee last year but was disqualified for failing to post a bond and meet a deadline. Their officials now say they have been promised a fresh look.

Horseplayers may find all they need to know about Capital Play's bid on page 51 of its 585-page bid, which proposes a massive increase in takeout on multiple wagers. The vigorish on exactas, currently 17.5 percent, would be increased to 25 percent, while daily double takeout would go from 17.5 to 20 percent and pick six takeout would soar to 30 percent.

In addition to explaining why New Yorkers should be subjected to the highest takeouts in American racing despite the imminent advent of slot-machine riches, Capital will have to convince Spitzer's panel why Australian businessmen are more appropriate beneficiaries of racing and slots profits than local investors or the state.

Empire (9-2)

Once the apparent front-runner after enlisting (by selling them inexpensive equity shares) many of the nation's biggest racing and wagering companies as partners, Empire suffered a narrow but stunning defeat when it lost out to Excelsior in the Ad Hoc Committee's bid-scoring process. The revelation that its bid included a takeout increase, though neither written in stone nor anything as exorbitant as Capital Play's proposed grab, did not win it much public support.

Still, Spitzer's saying that he will use the Ad Hoc panel's work only as a "starting point" buoys Empire's hopes for a new verdict, and it still has an impressive roster of partners including politically valuable support from upstate politicians and businesses.

Excelsior (5-2)

Excelsior's strong bid and consistently higher rankings from the Ad Hoc Committee still carry some weight, and its principals have close ties to Spitzer - but perhaps too close. Spitzer had to provide reimbursement for a loaned airplane and return excess campaign contributions from Richard Fields, who owns 47.5 percent of Excelsior. The Eagle Scout governor will have to distance himself from any appearance that he is rewarding cronies with the franchise, especially since Fields already is a likely beneficiary of Spitzer's plan to bring casinos to the Catskills.

Hybrid (8-1)

The hottest new starter in the field is not a single entity but the idea of creating a hybrid among Empire, Excelsior, and NYRA, combining the best of what each brings to the table. Spitzer and other state political leaders have alluded to such a possibility, which might placate the most politicians and bidders but might also prove as unworkable as most shotgun marriages.

New agency (5-1)

Almost every time that government panels have taken on the challenge of designing a new blueprint for New York racing, they have ended up rejecting any private operation in favor of - surprise! - a vast new government agency. This seems especially possible in the New York situation as a new bureaucracy might fold in the state's six OTB corporations.

Field (12-1)

Unlike the 427-member mutuel field in Round 1 of the Derby Futures, the "none of the above" option here has neither strength nor numbers. No new bidding groups are known to be forming, and Spitzer has promised his panel will make a final recommendation by the end of next month (book that one at any price), hardly time for a radical new approach. Longtime handicappers of the New York racing scene, however, will advise you never to pass up a juicy price on a completely unexpected (and probably unsatisfying) resolution when politicians are operating under a deadline.