Like a race viewed in slow motion, state leaders are coming to the finish line to grant the New York Racing Association another 25 years in charge of thoroughbred horse racing.
While no agreement was announced Tuesday evening by the governor’s office, the general expectation was that one would be announced today.
A source familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the agreement among Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, would likely be announced this morning and that NYRA would be a party to it.
The tentative agreement would advance NYRA $105 million to bail it out of bankruptcy, with the state to be repaid with future revenues from video lottery terminals that have already been authorized for Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, but not yet installed there. The agreement also establishes that the state, and not NYRA, owns the three race tracks: Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, and Aqueduct and Belmont Park downstate. The NYRA board would be reconstituted with 25 members, 14 of them to be appointed by NYRA and 11 of them by state government, the source said. The number of government appointees on the board has been a key sticking point in negotiations, with NYRA seeking to minimize it.
NYRA leaders, however, declined to comment on the franchise talks, or on whether they still intend to interrupt their current winter racing meet by closing Aqueduct on Thursday.
Bruno said there is three-way agreement among the Senate, governor and Assembly on a NYRA deal.
Spitzer, interviewed on WAMC radio, said, “I think we are just about there, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.” At a news conference earlier Tuesday, Spitzer said he disagreed with the pessimistic assessment Monday by NYRA Chairman Steven Duncker that negotiations were going backward.
Silver said an agreement was close, and “We are closer than we were yesterday.”
Spitzer indicated that he may issue a message of necessity permitting the Legislature to vote today on a NYRA bill, drafts of which have been circulating around the Capitol. After today, the Legislature is scheduled to be in recess until Feb. 25.
But if NYRA accepts a new long-term deal, it would presumably become willing to accept another temporary extension of its franchise, and keep Aqueduct open, even if the legislation were not passed today. However, a source familiar with the negotiations said legislative passage is expected today. NYRA’s threat to close Aqueduct was designed to pressure state leaders, particularly Bruno, to agree to a long-term deal.
NYRA’s ownership claim has been its crucial leverage in the legal and political arenas, with the Spitzer administration expressing concerns that NYRA could use the claim to disrupt racing if the state tried to give the franchise to another bidder.
The state has held a two-year bidding and hearing process, under two administrations, to determine who should run racing, before winding up back where it started with NYRA. NYRA’s franchise, which it has held since 1955, expired at the end of last year. Since then, it has received two temporary extensions.
NYRA will not have control of the installation and operation of the thousands of VLTs at Aqueduct. The state will award a separate gaming franchise for that location.
Karl O’Farrell, CEO of rival bidder Capital Play, said it remains interested in the Aqueduct gaming franchise. O’Farrell said it had been obvious since December that NYRA was going to get the racing franchise, and that he wishes it well.
Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, whose district includes Saratoga Springs, put out a statement expressing satisfaction that a NYRA deal appears set while deploring “the kind of ‘brinksmanship’ approach to negotiating that led to the original deadline being missed and the future of New York racing — along with thousands of jobs and billions in investment and economic activity — being jeopardized.”
Close to 100 NYRA workers and supporters rallied outside the Capitol on Tuesday, and 30 of them met inside with members of the Assembly Racing Committee.
Spokeswoman Gilda Libero said they came to Albany on a Tuesday, when the Aqueduct track is dark, and paid for their own bus transportation. Most of the workers travel between NYRA’s three tracks, and would be laid off either immediately or soon if Aqueduct is closed.
“We are not here as puppets of the NYRA,” Libero said in a statement she read to the politicians, “nor because we have been scared by our employer. Instead, I say to you, we are tired of our lives and livelihoods being held hostage by a political process that has taken place within the administration of two governors.”
The state Racing and Wagering Board issued a statement regarding its 11 a.m. meeting today, saying “whether or not the meeting will be held as scheduled is dependent on events relating to the franchise negotiations.”
On the agenda are approval of NYRA race dates and officials, which would be needed if Aqueduct is to stay open on Thursday and beyond.
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