By Bob Conner
CAPITOL — Charles Wait, president of Saratoga Springs-based Adirondack Trust Co., criticized Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno on Thursday in the bank’s annual report, saying the Senate leader is the obstacle to reaching a long-term agreement on New York’s thoroughbred horse racing franchise.
In the conclusion of his message to stockholders, Wait noted the importance of Saratoga Race Course to the area’s economy, and that Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, support a proposed agreement that would give the New York Racing Association an additional 30-year franchise to run the Saratoga track, along with Aqueduct and Belmont Park downstate.
Bruno, Wait said, is jeopardizing the area’s economy by refusing to compromise. “It is entirely within the power and ability of Senator Bruno to solve this problem immediately and without further delay,” he wrote.
Wait cited Bruno’s accomplishments and benefits he has helped confer on the area, concluding: “It would be a great shame if his record of achievement were tarnished by a failure to find common ground with the governor and the New York Racing Association.”
Wait acknowledged Thursday that NYRA deposits funds with Adirondack Trust during the summer racing season, and said: “If [Bruno] signed the memorandum of understanding, I’d give up the bank deposits.”
Wait said he resigned this week from the NYRA board, “because I didn’t want the appearance of any conflict of interest.” A longtime Republican and Bruno supporter, he said it was “unprecedented” for him to use the bank report to make a political statement.
Bruno told the Gazette that he is sticking up for the long-term interests of racing, state taxpayers and Saratoga. He said Spitzer has been using local issues against him, delaying the issuance of state funds needed for the proposed Advanced Micro Devices computer chip plant in Saratoga County, and holding up the racing deal.
Bruno said he is also trying to retain revenue for local governments associated with the video lottery terminals at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway. Spitzer has proposed cutting that revenue, as he did last year, when Bruno succeeded in getting it back into the budget. The administration contends that the revenue should only go to communities with higher poverty rates than Saratoga’s.
“[Spitzer’s] tactic is to create pressure instead of negotiating,” Bruno said. He said he is fine with NYRA running racing at the three tracks, but outside investors need to come in at Aqueduct and Belmont to do development and run video lottery terminals. The composition of the NYRA board also is an unresolved issue, Bruno said, but one that the parties are not far apart on.
There is widespread concern in Saratoga, even among longtime Bruno allies such as Chamber of Commerce President Joseph Dalton, that the racing impasse is a threat both to the summer season and the industry’s long-term future, especially if a track is shut down. Horses and trainers will follow the money, Dalton said, to other states where they can race.
NYRA’s franchise expired at the end of last year, and it has received two temporary extenders to keep the winter meet at Aqueduct going through Feb. 13. After that, Dalton said, “It could be the Valentine’s Day massacre.”
NYRA officials have indicated they may not be interested in another extender. NYRA is in federal Bankruptcy Court proceedings in Manhattan, and wants a long-term agreement reached as soon as possible so that it can satisfy the court and its creditors and keep running the tracks.
But Dalton said the blame does not lie just with Bruno, but with Spitzer, too, and all the leaders in Albany.
Spitzer spokeswoman Jennifer Givner said the governor expects a long-term agreement to be reached by Feb. 13.
Richard Violette, president of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said Bruno “has been supportive of protecting the horsemen’s money,” and has raised “valid issues.” Violette said his organization is concerned about where the VLT revenue goes, and the ability to weigh in on NYRA’s simulcasting contracts.
“There aren’t a lot of options for horsemen to go to right now,” Violette said, but other states will become an option as spring comes on, and his organization wants the long-term issue settled.
Asked why he doesn’t cave in to Spitzer, Bruno said it is “naive” to think that way because that’s not how government works — or at least not how he works.
“[Spitzer] figures people like you are going to get me to sweat,” Bruno said to a reporter, smiling as he headed back to his office. “I’m not sweating,” said the shirtsleeved Senate leader, raising his arms to demonstrate.
Steve Newman, chairman of the Nonprofit Racing Oversight Board, said he would try for another temporary NYRA extender if the issue is not resolved by Feb. 13. However, he said he does not want a long extender, as some other board members favor. Nor does Spitzer, Newman said.
Dalton said the agreement between Spitzer and NYRA is vague, with lots of details that need to be worked out. Wait, however, said Bruno should sign on the broad outline, and the details could then be dealt with.
Bruno said that if NYRA were to shut down Aqueduct, the Oversight Board could bring in another racing operator.