12/30/2007 12:00AM

Uncertainty remains over Aqueduct's status

EmailNew York Racing Association officials would not say with certainty Saturday that Aqueduct would stay open after Monday, Dec. 31, when NYRA's franchise to run three racetracks expires. NYRA has said it reached an agreement with the state to continue operating until Jan. 23, and on Saturday the New York State Racing and Wagering Board met to decide whether to approve the agreement. But the board determined that it did not have the power to rule on the agreement.

The lack of a ruling - and the byzantine structure of New York racing law and regulation - casts doubt on whether political leaders and NYRA would be able to forge an agreement to keep Aqueduct open on Jan. 1.

"I think it's a very good possibility" that NYRA will open Jan. 1, said Charles Hayward, NYRA president and CEO. "But we want to make sure we're doing everything right under the law and that our rights are protected."

During an emergency meeting of the racing and wagering board on Saturday that lasted four minutes, members of the board unanimously agreed with Robert Feuerstein, its legal counsel, that the board had no power to approve NYRA's agreement with the state. After the meeting, Dan Toomey, a spokesman for the board, explained that under the racing and wagering board's interpretation of the law, only the Non-Profit Racing Association Oversight Board has the power to determine who will run Aqueduct after Dec. 31.

"It wasn't necessary to act on their request," Toomey said.

NYRA officials said Saturday afternoon that they were meeting with officials of the oversight board - which was created in 2005 to monitor NYRA's operations - to work on language in the temporary agreement that would protect NYRA's rights to owning Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. The law that created the oversight board gave the agency the right to select an operator for the tracks if NYRA's franchise expired without a successor named or an extension.

The wagering board was called into

emergency session to consider the agreement, which was reached among NYRA, the state's attorney general, and the oversight board on Thursday night, NYRA officials have said. NYRA has not allowed any documents relating to the agreement to be made public, and has asked that they be protected under the state's Freedom of Information Law. The law gives state agencies the right to block the release of documents if it believes information in them is sensitive or proprietary.

NYRA is currently in bankruptcy, and claims it owns Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, an assertion that is disputed by some state officials. Because of that dispute, NYRA has resolutely been attempting to protect the legal claim to its properties, which is why it has sought the approval of the state attorney general in the short-term extension.

If the temporary extension is worked out to keep NYRA open until Jan. 23, then NYRA will be in operation for a full two weeks after the legislature is scheduled to return to session on Jan. 9. Any long-term extension to NYRA's franchise must be approved by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the assembly, and the senate.

Negotiations between state officials on a long-term extension to its franchise took place Thursday and Friday without a deal, although officials involved in the negotiations said that some progress was made toward resolving differences of opinion between Spitzer - who supports a 30-year extension - and Sen. Joseph Bruno, the senate majority leader, who is pushing for a shorter extension and the creation of a board that would control some aspects of NYRA's business.

NYRA's last racing day of the 2007 calendar year was to be Sunday. Aqueduct is dark Monday, but was scheduled to resume racing Tuesday, Jan. 1.

Shortly after the Saturday board meeting, Bruno appeared on a television show sponsored by Capital OTB Corp. and said that a long-term deal on a NYRA franchise extension was "down to a couple of details," but his comments were clearly based on his version of a deal.

"It may take a couple of weeks to get all the details done," Bruno said. "Practically speaking, it's a done deal."

Hayward appeared right after Bruno on the show, and he said he "wished he could share the senator's view that we are that close." Hayward said he didn't want to provide details about the current deal under negotiation.

"All parties are talking, but I think there are still some substantial hurdles," Hayward said.

Bruno said the Republican-controlled senate would be ready to pass a bill extending NYRA's franchise when the legislature returns to session Jan. 9, but did not provide details about the legislation. At one point, Bruno repeated language he has used previously that called for other companies to run some of NYRA's business operations - such as simulcasting - a prospect that NYRA has steadfastly resisted.

Bruno said one of the stumbling blocks on a deal is the 30-year extension sought by Spitzer and NYRA. Bruno has been pushing for a 15-year extension that would be reviewed every five years by a state oversight board. According to officials involved in the negotiations, Bruno softened his stance on Friday to a 20-year extension.

"What's magic about 30 years?" Bruno said. "I don't get it."

Bruno also repeated assertions that he favored the legalization of slot machines at Belmont Park. The legalization of slots is favored by NYRA, Spitzer, and a large number of casino and real-estate development companies that have been aggressively lobbying the legislature, but the proposal is opposed by assembly speaker Sheldon Silver.

A slot-machine casino was legalized at Aqueduct in 2001, but NYRA's efforts to build and open the casino have been blocked persistently by state officials. Bruno said he wanted casino and real-estate companies to become active in running the casino at Aqueduct and at Belmont.

"What is wrong with getting people like that involved?" Bruno said, referencing the real-estate and casino companies. "NYRA hasn't done it. And they've had years to do it. So we're saying, let the professional business people do what they do best, and let NYRA do what they do best, which is running racing."