06/28/2006 11:00PM

Pols play board games in New York


NEW YORK - A lame-duck governor appointing his pals to long-term government jobs on his way out the door is neither new nor peculiar to New York state and horse racing. Still, what outgoing Gov. George Pataki did last week was particularly egregious.

For most of Pataki's current term, he could not even be bothered to keep the state Racing and Wagering Board at its full complement of three members. He feuded with his own appointed chairman, replaced its most effective regulator with a neophyte, and left one seat perpetually unfilled. He failed to aid the industry in any meaningful way and then belatedly appointed a commission to award the New York racing franchise under an unrealistic timetable that nearly ensures the process will return to square one after Pataki leaves office at year's end.

On June 22, however, Pataki turned his attention to racing just long enough to appoint two politicians with minimal racing credentials to board terms that will outlast him by four and six years. The new chairman is Daniel Hogan, who has held five different jobs in the Pataki administration, including director of the Office of General Services. He will serve until June of 2012. The second appointee, John B. Simoni, owns an office-furniture company in Schenectady, N.Y., and once owned some harness horses. He was the choice of the state Senate majority leader, Joe Bruno, who had blocked Pataki's nomination of Bernadette Castro, the state's parks commissioner, to head the board because of his insistence that Simoni, a longtime friend and contributor, be given a spot that runs through June of 2010.

At least the racing board wasn't the only one packed with politically connected appointees in the final days of the legislative session. Pataki also named various lobbyists, staff lawyers, and relatives of state senators to long-term posts on, among other entities, the Public Service Commission, State Athletic Commission, State Mortgage Authority, and Workers' Compensation Board.

Left out from the new racing board were Castro and Cheryl Buley, whose replacement of Bennett Liebmann on the racing and wagering board in 2002 had been widely criticized but who took the job seriously and became a valuable member whose continued presence would have provided useful continuity.

Perhaps Hogan and Simoni will prove to be similarly quick studies, but it is discouraging to see the learning curve begin all over again at such a critical time for the future of New York racing.

Emerald restores some of the sparkle

If you ever find yourself feeling somewhat down at the sight of cavernous racetracks with empty grandstands and a shrinking number of simulcast players attached to television monitors, a trip to Seattle and a visit to Emerald Downs is an instant pick-me-up.

A recent visitor found Emerald, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last weekend by giving all attendees a free $10 betting voucher, to be a bundle of energy. The track was built for today's smaller crowds, with numerous attractive and cozy spots that lend a busy and lively feel even amid modest turnouts. Fans are provided with amenities including a modest rewards program, and track executives and employees at the independently owned track seem unusually cheerful and helpful. It's a player-oriented attitude that starts at the top with Ron Crockett. How can you not like a track owner who keeps a SAM machine in both his office and the corporate conference room?

The live racing is fun but decidedly modest, heavily reliant on Washington-breds, so a visitor last Saturday was surprised to see Cascade Rose, a $325,000 Giant's Causeway 2-year-old filly, making her debut in the first half of the daily double. She had to be better than the favorite, who had run a Beyer Speed Figure of only 43 in her debut, didn't she? She figured to be odds-on if she had any ability at all but seemed ice-cold on the board at 4-1 - or so thought the visitor who sat on his hands and watched the regally bred filly pay $10 to win.

Cascade Rose is owned by Jerre Paxton's Northwest Farms, which dominated Washington racing and breeding in the 1980's and 1990's until Paxton moved much of his operation to Kentucky. He still attends the Emerald races regularly, though, and occasionally showcases some of his pricey stock at his home track.

I will now remember Cascade Rose's victory every time I make a sandwich: It turns out that the Northwest Farms dynasty was funded by the proceeds Paxton's father, Floyd, received from inventing Kwik Lok, the little plastic clip you'll find on the neck of virtually every store-bought loaf of bread.