09/02/2011 2:20PM

With slots cash on the way, Saratoga's future looks bright

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As another largely successful Saratoga meeting comes to an end on Labor Day, there is real change in the air, surrounding not only the historic upstate track but also New York racing in general. In many ways this is the last Saratoga meeting of its kind, and that is meant in a good way.

The most outward sign of the change that is coming was an initial release Friday of the New York Racing Association’s preliminary proposals for capital improvements at the track over the next decade, the most significant ones in at least half a century. Relax – the place is going to look pretty much the same next year and the year after that. The initial timeline for the changes is three to seven years, and the plan is to allow for almost a full year of public discussion of possible alterations to a beloved site about which the writer Joe Palmer once wisely wrote, “A man who would change it would stir champagne.”

More significant than the ultimate choice of architectural plans for new backstretch dormitories and luxury boxes, however, is that the era of New York racing’s living hand to mouth may finally be drawing to a close. The driving force behind the proposed renovations is the availability of funds that will start being generated later this year when the Aqueduct racino finally opens. Under conservative estimates, there should be an additional $25 million a year for both race purses and capital improvements starting in 2012.

In addition to fixing up parts of Belmont and Saratoga that have been neglected for years, the additional money may bring a subtler change that is just as important. Due to constant political battles, the collapse of the OTB system and delays in opening the racino, NYRA has been teetering on bankruptcy for much of the past decade – and frequently, and understandably, acting like it.

Saratoga is the one golden goose in the operation, and it has been pushed to its limit by expanding from four to seven weeks of racing and maintaining six-day racing weeks at a time when most tracks have cut back to four days a week. Going from 216 to over 400 Saratoga races a year has watered down a product that remains excellent at its best but simply has too much filler.

There have been weekends when more than half the races are for maidens, and plenty of 10- and 11-race cards where less would have been more. Cards have a carelessly-arranged feel, with additional races tacked on to already-thin cards, stakes races scheduled in different places every day, and even the biggest days stretched thin with horses you’re more accustomed to seeing on a Thursday afternoon at Aqueduct in February.

Turning on the slots spigot should reduce the pressure on NYRA to run so many races and encourage it instead to behave more like a not-for-profit caretaker of world-class racing than a struggling business constantly struggling to meet the payroll and keep meddlesome politicians at bay.

The latter struggle is a never-ending one. On the eve of the meeting, I wrote here that this was one of the first Saratogas in recent memory that was not beginning with NYRA’s being under siege from legislators. I spoke too soon: Within 48 hours, the state comptroller had announced yet another grandstanding audit of track operations, and a state senator called hearings for this month on a variety of topics, including a bizarre suggestion to explore methods for nullifying NYRA’s franchise agreement with the state, which runs through the year 2038.

If these politicians truly want to be helpful, they would instead be encouraging NYRA and the state Racing and Wagering Board to have a long-overdue sitdown and fix some of the ill-conceived regulatory measures that are a daily insult and inconvenience to paying customers.

Thousands of bettors were deprived of proper returns twice in recent weeks due to a misguided rule decreeing automatic pick-six carryovers when two or more races are declared “alls” because of a surface change. It is inexcusable that when this situation came up for the first time at Belmont in July, it was not immediately fixed. Instead, the same injustice was perpetrated at Saratoga a month later. Additionally, it is decades past time to scrap indefensible rules prohibiting superfectas in races with coupled entries, and mandating a refund of all trifecta bets when there is a gate scratch in a six-horse field. All that these rules do is confuse customers and cost everyone money.

Having some money to play with by the time the next Saratoga rolls around is going to be an unaccustomed luxury for NYRA. Just maybe, if the legislators behave themselves and NYRA takes the high and careful road, it can be the beginning on an even and bigger and better era of racing at Saratoga.