07/23/2001 12:00AM

Schwartz at the Spa: Year One in new role

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In years past, an enjoyable day at Saratoga for Barry Schwartz meant simply watching one of his horses run or tackling the challenge of handicapping the card. Oh, how times have changed.

"I honestly don't sit with a newspaper and handicap anymore, there's just not enough time," Schwartz, 58, said.

Schwartz, who last October was named Chairman and CEO of the New York Racing Association, will oversee his first Saratoga meet beginning Wednesday. He does so at a time when the NYRA is in a bitter fight with Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment for the right to buy New York City Off-Track Betting Corp. There have been several reports indicating that Magna is the front-runner.

"No question it casts a shadow over everything we do," Schwartz said. "It's taken a lot of time and resources away from our main focus, which is running racing. It's just a necessary evil, but I'm not going to enjoy Saratoga any less."

Schwartz is looking forward to another record-setting Saratoga meet. And he is eager to see how a reduction in takeout - the amount of every dollar wagered that goes to purses, expenses, and taxes - affects handle. The takeout reduction starts with the opening of Saratoga.

"I'm really excited about this particular Saratoga meet," Schwartz said. "The most exciting new thing is going to be the takeout reduction. Obviously, we're going to watch handle very carefully every day. It's something that I really wanted; we got it."

Because of the takeout reduction, Schwartz said NYRA must realize a seven-percent increase in handle to remain "revenue neutral."

"If we increase handle seven percent we'll have the same gross dollars at the end of the day," Schwartz said. "It won't impact anybody's bottom line, not the OTB's, not the horsemen, not NYRA."

Schwartz said he didn't feel any pressure shooting for a seven-percent increase in handle.

"I know it's going to work," he said. "It's just a question of how fast it will work and how much. The last [takeout reduction] was over 20 years ago and that generated a 15 percent increase in handle."

Each summer, rumors run rampant about an extension in the Saratoga meet, which will be run at 36 days for the fifth consecutive year. Schwartz said the meet would remain at its current length.

"There's been no discussion about any changes to the 36 days," Schwartz said. "I think it's a perfect length. I certainly could not see extending it, because it's too great a hardship, not only for the horsemen but the townspeople as well. They can't give up their homes for that amount of time. We're very content to stay with 36 days."

The only expansion of Saratoga that Schwartz wants is more barns to accommodate more horses. Currently, Saratoga has 1,650 stalls. Sometime during this six-week period, NYRA will present to the Capital Investment Fund a plan to build 500 more stalls - 10 barns with 50 stalls each - over the next five years. The barns would be built on the Oklahoma side behind Nick Zito's barn.

Schwartz would also like to get his picture taken a few times in the winner's circle. On Thursday, his maiden winner Seeking the Money, runs in the $100,000 Sanford Stakes for juvenile colts. Five years ago, How About Now gave Schwartz his most memorable Saratoga meet by winning the Schuylerville on opening day.

"I always joked that that was the race I wanted to win the most because it took all the heat off the whole meet," Schwartz said.

This summer, Schwartz is facing a different kind of heat.