06/16/2009 12:00AM

Racing a victim of political infighting


TUCSON, Ariz. - Rebellion and racing normally live in separate worlds, whether on television or in real life. Palace revolts and insurrection and anarchy usually have little to do with racetracks and the people and horses that frequent them.

The two collided last week in Albany, N.Y., where incredible things happen regularly in the New York legislature. This happening, however, was so remarkable that the Albany Times-Union, accustomed as it is to the subterfuge and shenanigans of the august body that meets in its city, called it "a political coup for the history books."

As widely reported, a Rochester multimillionaire named Tom Golisano hatched the plan, and executed it by getting two Democratic state senators to switch party allegiance to the Republicans, who had lost the New York Senate last November in a close race after controlling it for 40 years.

Why would the two state senators, Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate, both New York City Democrats, do that? You have to understand the New York Senate is a carefully chosen group. Monserrate is facing charges of allegedly slashing his girlfriend with a broken bottle. Espada was under pressure to pay thousands of dollars in fines for failing to file overdue campaign finance reports. Despite those minor aberrations, both were welcomed in the coup, and Espada, for his part, was named temporary president of the Senate. A furious governor, David Paterson, had it right when he said of the uprising, "Once again, Albany's dysfunction raised its ugly head."

Which is where racing enters this shoddy affair.

The temporary president of the New York Senate, it so happens, stands second in the state in line of succession to the governor. His other duties are not merely ceremonial, either. He gets to vote on who will build the racino at Aqueduct, and he gets to appoint two members to the board of directors of the New York Racing Association.

The New York legislature is scheduled to adjourn June 22, but Espada, flexing his new muscles, was quoted as saying that he saw no reason for that date "to be the end of anything," saying the session could run through the summer, if necessary.

One thing seems certain. With Espada now getting to vote on the Aqueduct issue along with Gov. Paterson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is the real reigning political power in New York state, a resolution in choosing the builder and/or operator of the Aqueduct racino seems likely to fade once again into the mists of Queens. It is eight years now since racinos were legalized in New York state, which reportedly is losing a million dollars a day without the Aqueduct version up and running. Purses suffer, too. And blatant disregard for the urgency and niceties of compromise continues to roil the waters in Albany.

In Illinois, things are better, but not much.

Four riverboat casinos - the state's largest - were ordered two years ago to pay more than $80 million held in escrow to Illinois racetracks for business damage and impacts to the tracks. The riverboats went to court, one after the other, and last week wound up in the highest court of all, the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.

Well, not exactly, for the Supreme Court refused to hear their case. Presumably, that ended that, and Illinois horsemen began popping purse corks.

Except the noise of bubbly was lost in the swirls of still another riverboat lawsuit, this one filed against the state's dishonored and impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and several track executives. Blagojevich allegedly had offered to support - perhaps assure is a better word - the casino subsidy legislation for $100,000, and the casinos now say that effort "directly victimized" them. The demand for the hundred grand never was met, track attorneys say, so it remains to be seen where their clients are involved because they listened to the governor's request.

In Kentucky and New Hampshire this week, state legislatures pondered the problems of state budget shortfalls, with both considering slots at their state's racetracks as possible partial solutions. By the time this ink is dry, those issues should be resolved, with the welfare of Kentucky's historic Bluegrass breeding and racing industries at stake. In New Hampshire, management of century-old Rockingham Park has said publicly that the track cannot survive without supplemental income from slots or alternative gaming.

Those Rocks of Racing - one legendary, the other real - rest on shaky foundations.

What depressingly desperate days these are for racing.