08/08/2001 12:00AM

Schwartz scoffs at 'empty promises' by Stronach


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In a stinging response, New York Racing Association chairman Barry Schwartz said Wednesday that critical remarks concerning New York's racetracks by Frank Stronach were "more of the same old empty rhetoric."

Stronach, the chairman of Magna Entertainment, which owns 10 racetracks, including Santa Anita Park in Southern California and Gulfstream Park in Florida, criticized NYRA while making an unannounced appearance at a racing-law conference Tuesday, saying NYRA's tracks needed to become "a major entertainment and destination center." Stronach said Magna would make a bid on NYRA's racing franchise, when the state opens the bidding in four years.

"Here he goes again with all his empty promises," Schwartz said. "It's becoming ridiculous, isn't it? NYRA needs an entertainment center. NYRA needs to be a destination spot, he says. Look at all the racetracks he's bought. When is the entertainment center going to be built at Santa Anita? How long has he been saying that? I certainly didn't see an entertainment center last time I was out there.

"It would be an absolute horror show if he ran NYRA," Schwartz said. "The state would never let him in."

Schwartz's response is the latest salvo in a battle that has been simmering since last week, when a partnership headed by Magna was tabbed by New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani as the winning bidder for New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation, beating out a partnership headed by NYRA. The sale still has to be approved by the legislature, an unlikely prospect this year. Schwartz has made remarks in the past week contending that Magna and its partners were unfit to run OTBs in the city.

A lobbyist with connections to Magna said privately this week that one of Magna's intentions in making an offer for New York City OTB was to introduce itself to New York politicians and to position itself for future bidding on NYRA's racing franchise. The franchise expires in 2007, but the state is expected to open up the bidding in 2005.

"Having OTB would be nice, but what Frank really wants is NYRA," the lobbyist said.

NYRA supports video lottery

In another development Wednesday, NYRA announced that it would support legislation allowing video lottery terminals at the state's racetracks, including Aqueduct and Belmont, but not Saratoga.

The announcement comes two months after a survey funded by the Coalition to Promote and Preserve Horse Racing and Breeding in New York estimated that VLTs would enable tracks to double its purse structure while also providing $700 million to the New York State Education Fund. NYRA, which has no plans to become part of the coalition, came out with its position following its monthly board meeting at Saratoga.

"In a perfect world, we probably wouldn't have been in favor of them," Schwartz said in an afternoon news conference in Saratoga's press box. `"But, we're surrounded by racetracks that have them. We had 700 empty stalls in New York this winter; that's the first time I've ever seen anything like that. People can go other places; purses are very good in other places. We were miles ahead of everybody else in our purse structure; we're not any longer."

Schwartz said NYRA did not come out with a position until now because it viewed passage of such legislation as unrealistic. Several bills have been introduced in various legislative committees that would allow VLTs.

"Frankly, a year ago or six months ago, I didn't think there was a chance they could get them in New York,"' Schwartz said. "As time's gone on it seems more and more likely there is a movement among the legislators to have them in New York. Certainly we wanted to be a part of it."

In other developments, Schwartz said NYRA is looking into the possibility of expanding the clubhouse and box seat area at Saratoga. That would be achieved by the building of a new structure that would replace the At the Rail Pavilion located by the clubhouse turn.

Also, the Board of Trustees approved the 2002 Saratoga racing dates. The 36-day meet would run from July 24 through Sept. 2 (Labor Day).

- additional reporting by David Grening