By James M. Odato
|ALBANY — Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders are preparing what appears to be a take-it-or-leave-it deal for the New York Racing Association to continue running the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga thoroughbred tracks.
The franchise extension, which comes with $105 million in bailout money for the racing association, is portrayed by government officials as an offer that would be hard to refuse. NYRA is operating under protection of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan.
Yet NYRA has so far balked at accepting the deal, according to an official involved in the negotiations. It is threatening to close down Aqueduct on Feb. 14 and furlough employees, because the association’s board of directors think the deal substantially undercuts an agreement NYRA made with Spitzer in September.
The terms of the deal are laid out in a thick draft bill being readied for possible legislative passage next week. Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno said that he, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Spitzer have essentially agreed on the 25-year franchise extension for NYRA.
Spitzer’s director of operations, Paul Francis, concurred with Bruno that there are essentially no differences among the negotiators other than some "language issues."
The terms include stripping NYRA of control of its own board. Talks have involved 21 or 23 members, with NYRA getting just one more appointee than the number of appointed by the governor and Legislature.
Any NYRA decision would have to be backed by a supermajority of a reconstituted board, which means NYRA would need support from the government appointees to take action. Even appointment of its own trustees would require a vote of the full board.
The new proposal also calls for labor representatives on the board, Bruno said.
NYRA, which has run the tracks since 1955, historically has been controlled by a group of wealthy horse owners with shares in the private company with the deeds to the tracks.
NYRA wants terms closer to those it worked out privately with Spitzer in the fall, under which the association agreed to relinquish its claims to ownership of the tracks in exchange for a 30-year extension and a restructured board that would give NYRA 13 of the 18 trustees.
Officials with the association say no one but NYRA can approve who runs the tracks as long as the association holds those deeds.
NYRA’s response to the proposed deal has been to inform its 1,300 workers and the hundreds of trainers and other backstretch workers that Aqueduct would go dark on Feb. 14 and layoffs will commence. It has told the trainers to plan to remove their horses from Aqueduct and Belmont barns by Feb. 27.
Bruno said NYRA is trying to pressure him with "scare tactics."
Bruno relented in his demand for a new structure for off-track betting operations, leaving that to a new commission that will make recommendations in May 2009. He also dropped his desire for VLTs at Belmont for another time.
Bruno said he thought those compromises would lead to a final franchise deal.
Silver said he believes there is momentum toward an agreement, but added: "It’s everybody’s job to hammer out a final deal … I can’t predict how reasonable Sen. Bruno will be."
People working in the horse industry are upset, said Ann Khanna, a 20-year backstretch worker at Saratoga Race Course. She has been going door-to-door in Saratoga Springs urging Saratogians to contact their elected leaders.
"Nobody’s thinking about the backstretch workers. … people who work seven days a week … for peanuts," she said. "It’s nothing to you if Aqueduct closes for two weeks or four weeks but … that’s their life."
Susan Duncan, an assistant trainer, blames NYRA and the politicians.
"Some people are planning on taking their horses to another racetrack, but all the grooms and hot walkers and maintenance men, there’s a lot of people losing their jobs," she said. "We’re told it could only be for a few days, that an agreement may finally come about, but we don’t know. Everything is up in the air."