12/30/2004 1:00AM

Schwartz was on players' side


NEW YORK - A few years ago, Barry Schwartz named one of his homebreds Everydayissaturday because a friend had told him that's what life would seem like as he retired from business and turned all his attention to racing.

New Year's Day will be Schwartz's first Saturday since 2001 that he has not been the chairman of the New York Racing Association, ending a four-year term that was anything but serene. Running NYRA was more like an endless succession of Monday mornings in hell.

A series of entirely politically motivated state investigations, turning up nothing but low-level income-tax evasion by some mutuel clerks, impoverished and paralyzed NYRA for much of his tenure. Slot machines at Aqueduct, approved two years ago but still hostage to inattentive legislators and poorly written legislation, are still at least a year away. While NYRA's racing and simulcast product continues to be the best there is, its customer incentives and amenities are among the worst in racing.

Schwartz was anything but retiring in the face of these frustrations.

When New York City made a blatantly illegal attempt to sell its OTB operation to Magna Entertainment with no public hearings, Schwartz said such a move would be "a complete and colossal disaster."

"Here he goes again with all his empty promises," he said of Magna chairman Frank Stronach. "It's becoming ridiculous, isn't it? 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?"

When Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's first report was published in June 2003, Schwartz was furious.

"This clearly has been a witch hunt for the last three years," he said. "I am outraged with it. It is filled with inaccuracies, lies, and misquotes. It is all in the spirit of the attorney general looking for sensationalism."

When Donald Trump tried to parlay Spitzer's vendetta into an argument for keeping slot machines out of New York, where they would compete with Trump's Atlantic City casinos, Schwartz was even more succinct:

"Donald Trump is a sleazebag and everyone knows it," he said.

Newspapermen are mourning the likely absence of such candid and colorful observations in Schwartz's absence and as NYRA begins a two-year program of being really nice to everyone in the face of an uncertain franchise renewal in 2007.

Horseplayers can only hope that Schwartz's cornerstone achievement at NYRA survives. The question of whether the public is better off for Schwartz's years as chairman can be answered in the affirmative with two words: takeout reductions.

Schwartz, who parlayed a 1968 investment of $10,000 from his family's grocery-store profits into a large stake in what would become his boyhood friend Calvin Klein's fashion empire, never stopped being a horseplayer. He played the pick six, he listened to customers and, most importantly, he understood the math of gambling. While other jurisdictions increased takeout and New York's OTB's kept trying to do the same, Schwartz not only rebuffed such efforts but also reduced the vigorish on NYRA races to some of the lowest levels in the industry - 14 percent on straight bets and 17.5 percent on two-horse wagers. He slashed the takeout on non-carryover pick sixes from 25 to 20 and then 15 percent.

"Every time someone has a financial problem in this industry," he said, "they tax the horseplayer. They're going to tax them right out of our racetracks."

He said that the OTB operators, who already are gearing up for another takeout-increase run this year by pleading poverty, "don't understand the takeout, they don't understand the game, they don't understand gambling."

Fortunately, Schwartz's successors seem to. Steve Duncker and Peter Karches, who will take over the chairman part of Schwartz's job, have been known to chase a carryover, and Charlie Hayward, who recently assumed the CEO portion of Schwartz's duties, knows his way around a trifecta part-wheel. Whereas NYRA once insisted it was not in the gambling business - its tragic rationale for turning down a chance to run OTB over 30 years ago - under Schwartz it became the player's best ally in New York racing.