08/15/2003 11:00PM

Spitzer challenges Ward

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer called trainer John Ward earlier this week to discuss comments Ward had made that were critical of Spitzer's investigation into the New York Racing Association, Ward said on Friday outside his barn at Saratoga Racecourse.

Ward, a Kentucky native who keeps a stable in New York, characterized the Wednesday conversation as "cordial," but said that ultimately he and Spitzer had agreed to disagree. In published comments in several newspapers, Ward had called Spitzer's investigation of NYRA "no more than a political assassination campaign" and that racing in New York is being "cannibalized by politics."

Ward said that Spitzer had told him during the telephone conversation that Ward was mistaken in calling the investigation politically motivated. Ward said he did not know what the ultimate purpose of the call was other than "two guys stating what their opinions were, establishing their positions, and going on from there."

"He was concerned that I was saying that his investigation was politically motivated," Ward said. "I said I didn't intend just to say that, but that I would continue to say what I did because that is what I believe and I've got that First Amendment right. But he told me his intent was not political, and for me to brand it as political was a mistake." When asked if Spitzer had asked him not to comment on the investigation during the conversation, Ward said, "That's when we got into the Constitution."

Because of the blackout affecting New York, Spitzer could not be reached for comment on Friday, according to Spitzer's Albany-based spokesman, Paul Larabee. Spitzer released a report in late June that was highly critical of NYRA management, citing the convictions of 19 NYRA mutuel tellers over the past three years. Sixteen of the tellers were convicted of tax evasion related to cash shortages in their mutuel boxes; the other three were convicted of money laundering after a sting engineered by state investigators.

In his report, Spitzer called for the removal of Terry Meyocks, NYRA's chief operating officer, for allegedly allowing the criminal behavior to take place on his watch. Spitzer also called for NYRA to overhaul its security procedures.

Although NYRA officials and board members initially sparred with Spitzer over the release and content of the report, NYRA announced in July that it had hired SafirRossetti, a consulting firm headed by former New York city police commissioner Howard Safir, to recommend improvements to NYRA's cash controls and security.