NYRA franchise impasse continues

New York Racing Association Chairman Steven Duncker said Monday that “the franchise discussions are
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New York Racing Association Chairman Steven Duncker said Monday that “the franchise discussions are going backward, not forward,” and “We find the current state of negotiation to be pointing irrevocably toward a cessation of racing this week.”

Duncker’s statement points to an apparent split between NYRA and Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who until recently had been allies in a standoff with Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, over the future of thoroughbred horse racing in New York.

NYRA’s franchise to run Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct Race Track expired at the end of 2007, but has twice been temporarily extended. NYRA is now threatening to shut down its winter meet at Aqueduct in Queens on Thursday, after the expiration of the latest temporary extension at midnight Wednesday. It says it does not want further temporary extensions, but only a new, long-term franchise.

Spitzer had proposed a new 30-year franchise for NYRA, but Bruno raised various objections. The crucial outstanding objection appears to be over the composition of the NYRA board, and whether state government leaders gain more influence over it.

Duncker’s statement was critical of a proposed bill that has been circulating among state leaders, and said, “While we agree that the NYRA board should be streamlined, as we earlier resolved with the governor in a memorandum of understanding last September, the newly proposed structure would politicize the board and endanger the very reforms that have been accomplished to date.”

Spitzer spokeswoman Jennifer Givner issued a statement saying: “The governor is continuing to work with all parties to bridge any differences that stand in the way of an agreement.” She declined further comment.

Bruno said, “It’s really the governor’s move,” and of the proposed bill: “It’s not ideal, but it’s a deal.” Details of the bill are still being negotiated, and spokesmen for Spitzer and Bruno said they remained hopeful of reaching agreement by Wednesday.

Bruno said NYRA’s governance structure needs to be changed, or “they’d go back into bankruptcy.”

Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, whose district, like Bruno’s, includes Saratoga Race Course, said the proposed bill addresses concerns he had raised about local taxes.

Under the proposed bill, Tedisco said, NYRA would pay property taxes as it does now, not payments in lieu of taxes as had been suggested previously by the Spitzer administration.

Steven Newman, chairman of the Nonprofit Racing Oversight Board, said he remains hopeful that a deal will be worked out by Wednesday between state leaders and NYRA.

If there is no deal, and NYRA tries to shut down Aqueduct, the Oversight Board could seek to prevent that by hiring another racing operator — probably one of the other bidders for the racing franchise.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about that possibility,” Newman said.

More than 100 NYRA employees are expected at the Capitol today to rally and lobby legislators in support of a new franchise agreement.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Scott Johnson said he understands NYRA’s frustration during the ongoing negotiations.

But Johnson said he has “real concern about their threats of shutting down to get an agreement.”

Johnson, who is an attorney, said he spent 26 years as a litigator and that making threats to gain a position, as he sees NYRA doing, “is not how you negotiate.”

Saratoga Springs officials are worried that the NYRA impasse could affect the upcoming racing meet at the Saratoga Race Course on Union Avenue. The racing dates are July 23 through Sept. 1.

A closure of Aqueduct also could result in horsemen leaving the state to pursue their livelihood elsewhere, and the possibility that some might not return to New York when racing does.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, confirmed that negotiations are ongoing, with the structure of the NYRA board a key issue. He also said the Senate is raising the issue of whether Off Track Betting parlors should continue to be required to carry the NYRA simulcast signal. But Bruno spokesman Scott Reif said OTB issues are not part of this proposed agreement.

Categories: Schenectady County

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