03/13/2009 12:00AM

Slots' ability to rescue racing fades


NEW YORK - Seven years and four months ago, New York state lawmakers voted to allow slot machines at Aqueduct Race Track. By the most conservative estimates, even a small slice of the revenue from a monopoly on one-armed bandits in the nation's largest city would flood racing's coffers, building sparkling new facilities and ushering in an era of $100,000 maiden races.

Seven years and four months later, the only change to the facilities at Aqueduct has been to shut down half the plant, the maidens are running for $43,000, and the prospect of a casino and its riches seems as unlikely as the flying cars promised at the 1964 World's Fair.

The announcement last week that Delaware North would be unable to fulfill its apparent winning bid for the casino was the latest and harshest setback to the plans. Last fall, the company, which operates racinos at Finger Lakes and Saratoga Harness, won a three-bidder race for the Aqueduct casino award, largely on the strength of a promised $370 million upfront payment to the cash-strapped state treasury. Now, as a national recession slides toward depression, Delaware North can't come up with the cash, and the state has decided to reopen the application and bidding process.

Revenues that were expected to start flowing racing's way next year won't be coming in for at least another year, and at this rate, maybe seven more. Meanwhile, the state continues to lose out on $250 million to $400 million in estimated annual revenues.

It gets worse.

Whatever bid is ultimately accepted in the new process is sure to be much stingier than the ones being floated just a few months ago, much less a few years ago in more prosperous times. It's 1-to-10 that racing will get a smaller slice of the slots pie, and fewer ancillary benefits from what are sure to be scaled-down proposals for facility development.

Also, the entire issue has been further clouded by the prospect of bringing slots to Belmont Park. When government thought it had a done deal at Aqueduct, politicians, including Gov. David Patterson, began pressing for that next step, which would require voter approval and faces strong opposition from various quarters. It's a longshot and even farther away than the Aqueduct project, but the prospect of competition from another slots facility just eight miles away has to devalue the Aqueduct franchise.

The whole miserable saga of the last seven slotless years mirrors the corruption in state government during that time.

After the 2001 vote, the New York Racing Association embarked on racino construction in partnership with MGM Grand. The builder, however, was forced to withdraw from the project in 2003 when politicians led by Eliot Spitzer, then the state attorney general, and Alan Hevesi, the state comptroller, undertook criminal prosecutions of NYRA for alleged corruption. Their charges, which proved to be much ado about nothing, paralyzed racing and the casino project for years. Meanwhile, Spitzer resigned from the governorship after a prostitution scandal, and Hevesi was forced to leave office for misusing state funds.

The charges against NYRA, and the lure of casino riches, led to a four-year delay in resolving NYRA's franchise to operate the tracks. Largely at the urging of former Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, currently under indictment for awarding state contracts to business associates, various out-of-state groups with no genuine interest in racing's welfare bid for the NYRA franchise, further delaying the implementation of slots. NYRA got the racing franchise, but the slots operation was put off to the side for later action by the state, which took another year to accept the Delaware North bid that has now fallen through.

In addition to the sordidness of this unhappy history in New York, there's a cautionary tale for the entire racing industry about putting its hopes, dreams, and business plans on slot machines. It seemed like free money in better times, but we're about to see impoverished states clawing back racing's share of these revenues. Politicians are already openly questioning why slots money should subsidize a declining racing industry.

For all the talk about Frank Stronach's eccentric management style and racing ideas, Magna Entertainment's recent bankruptcy filing was less about racetrack management than about the failure of a vision that racinos would be legalized and thriving from coast to coast by now. That was the true driving force behind Magna's and Churchill Downs's acquisition of tracks early in this decade. One slots home run in a California, Kentucky, or Maryland could have made all the difference.

Instead, there have been a lot of strikeouts, and as New York so dramatically illustrates, the pot of gold may be nearly empty by the time you get from voter approval to spinning reels. More and more, it appears that racing is going to have to succeed or fail on its own.