10/22/2001 11:00PM

Video lottery on way to Big A

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NEW YORK - Leaders of the New York legislature are close to approving a plan that will allow Aqueduct racetrack to operate video lottery terminals year-round, legislative and racing officials said Tuesday.

There has been an about-face by many legislators who fiercely opposed expanded gambling earlier this summer. With state tax receipts in a freefall as the economy sours, and with the financial burden of the World Trade Center attacks rapidly mounting, opposition to expanded gambling has significantly dampened.

Under the plan being considered, Aqueduct, which is owned by the New York Racing Association, would be allowed to operate up to 2,500 video lottery terminals for the next three years on an experimental basis. Yonkers Raceway, a harness track, and perhaps an upstate track may also be included, legislative sources said late Tuesday.

Video lottery terminals are nearly identical to slot machines, but do not have moving parts. Another difference is that payoffs are affected by the results on other machines in use at the same time.

Lawmakers were busy Tuesday afternoon putting the finishing touches on the measure, according to a spokesman for Rep. Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly. The spokesman said Silver would not comment on the measure until he had presented it to other representatives Tuesday night.

Barry Schwartz, the chairman of NYRA, which owns and operates Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course, said Tuesday that "nothing has been finalized," but he also said that he was "reasonably confident that VLTs will be approved, and we will have them at Aqueduct.

"We're facing some very difficult times here [in New York], and there are needs for enormous amounts of money," said Schwartz. "This is one way to raise an enormous amount of money."

The bill will also likely authorize several new Native American casinos in the state and allow New York to participate in the multistate lottery game Powerball.

Supporters of the issue have said that New York should authorize expanded gambling to avoid losing tax revenues to nearby racetracks with slot machines, such as Delaware Park. Opponents of the machines complain that they are highly addictive and contribute to poverty.

The VLTs will be run by the New York Lottery.

New York's six offtrack betting corporations are fiercely opposed to the gambling measure, said several lobbyists, and have begun pushing for additions to the agreement. The additions would expand the number of simulcasts that OTBs could offer and remove the OTBs' obligation to make payments to NYRA. The lobbyist for all six New York OTB corporations, Jim Ryan, could not be reached.

Although Schwartz could not be specific about the distribution of VLT revenues, he said NYRA would share revenues from the VLTs with horsemen at the association's three tracks.

"This will be a tremendous infusion to purses year-round," Schwartz said. "And it's something we need. We need to be more than competitive."