By Michael Gormley, Associated Press
|ALBANY — The New York Racing Association will continue to run thoroughbred horse racing in New York for the next 25 years under a deal that ends years of uncertainty in the racing world and a key political conflict in Albany.
In exchange for the franchise to operate the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga race courses, NYRA will give up its disputed claim to ownership of the tracks, an issue it used as leverage in the talks that ended hours before a temporary franchise extension was set to expire, state leaders and NYRA officials said Wednesday.
NYRA will receive $105 million from the state to get out of bankruptcy and the state will forgive millions of dollars more in loans that were part of previous bailouts. The state now plans to pick a gaming operator to open up video slot machines at Aqueduct.
The agreement also expands the board of NYRA, a private entity. The new board will have open meetings and include more representatives from government and the racing industry, although NYRA members will still have a majority.
"This a great day for thoroughbred racing in New York and for all the people involved with the State’s vital thoroughbred industry," said Charles Hayward, president and CEO of NYRA, which has held the franchise since 1955.
The deal also increases the funding stream for harness tracks at Yonkers, Monticello, Tioga, Vernon Downs and Finger Lakes. Those tracks have said they needed to keep a bigger share of their revenues to compete with other forms of gambling.
A bill setting the deal passed in the Democrat-led Assembly and Republican-led Senate on Wednesday.
But Republican senators representing Nassau County refused to join their majority conference, as is usually routine in Albany. They objected mostly because the deal doesn’t allow for video slot machines at Belmont Park.
"Thoroughbred racing plays an important role in our economy, employing thousands of New Yorkers around the state," said Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who will sign the agreement into law. "Today we have reached an agreement that represents the best vision for the future of the horse racing industry, and will ensure that operations at these tracks will continue uninterrupted and have the financial resources they need to thrive in the future."
"The horse came in at the wire," said Assembly Republican leader James Tedisco of Schenectady, whose district includes Saratoga Springs. "We were close to going over the cliff, but we didn’t."
Although a deal was struck Tuesday, Republican senators on Long Island continued to object to the exclusion of video slot machines at Belmont, in the Nassau County town of Elmont.
"It’s about doing the right thing for the people of Elmont," said Republican Sen. Dean Skelos, a top ranking senator who has long been considered a leading contender for majority leader. They "are not looking for a handout. They are looking for a helping hand from the governor and the (Assembly) speaker and that helping hand has been slapped down," Skelos said on the Senate floor.
Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said the defection of the strongest and most reliable base in his conference isn’t a sign of weakness. He said they were acting on a local issue, which is often allowed for a break in the party line. "It was in their backyard." Bruno said.
Bruno also said he didn’t need to trade other legislation to get the support of the Senate’s Democrats, who have long complained the Republicans use rules and power to keep them down.
Bruno told reporters he promised Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith of Queens "nothing, no thing. Just the goodness of what we are doing … and the wisdom."
But the NYRA vote was delayed for hours as lawmakers privately negotiated bills that the Democrats could get passed in exchange for their support, Republican and Democratic senators confirmed.
The bill passed 39-17, with rare "no" votes by Long Island Republican Sens. Charles Fuschillo, Kemp Hannon, Carl Marcellino, and Skelos.