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Spitzer hints at finish line for Aqueduct

Recently, Governor Eliot Spitzer announced further steps in the process for awarding the franchise to operate New York’s three state-owned horseracing facilities: Belmont Park, Saratoga Racecourse and Aqueduct Racetrack.
In the July 20 announcement, Spitzer cited “significant changes” to the ownership and structure of some of the four groups bidding on the franchise rights and asked that they update the proposals submitted in April, explaining any changes.
Spitzer set an August 7 deadline for submitting the revised or confirmed proposals.
Since the proposals were submitted, The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association ended their association with bidder Empire Racing Associates in June.
In mid-July, bidder Capitol Play, the New York-based subsidiary of an Australian firm with a similar name, was joined by Mohegan Sun, the casino operator owned by a Native American tribe in Connecticut.
Bidder and current track operator, the New York Racing Authority, (NYRA) remains under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in federal court, where a judge has yet to rule on their claim of ownership of the land under the tracks.
Excelsior Racing, named best bidder by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing in New York in February, lost George Steinbrenner and the Yankees as partners in the beginning of April. A few days later, casino mogul Steve Wynn joined the group, along with “several high-powered finance, real estate and development partners,” according to a statement on their web site.
Spitzer’s statement declared that he intends to make a recommendation to the Legislature regarding disposition of the franchise and related matters no later than September 4.
Since taking office, Spitzer has intimated that he might propose closing Aqueduct entirely, and seek to use the property for other purposes, rather than keep the track open, and build a gaming facility to contain the 4,500 Video Lottery Terminals authorized by the Legislature.
An indication that Spitzer will propose closing Aqueduct can be found in the latest statement, which says the Governor “may name one operator for both gaming and development/racing or name an operator for each.” This is the first time the word “development” is used as an alternative to “racing” in an official statement.
No matter what Spitzer proposes, the Legislature will have to agree before the plan moves forward, and there is strong opposition in both the Senate and Assembly to closing Aqueduct.
Assemblymember Audrey Pheffer, who represents the district which includes Aqueduct, has already said she would “fight to the death” to keep horseracing there as it has been for 115 years.
Senator John Sabini, who was named to the judging committee after it was reconstituted by Spitzer after he took office in January, is on record as supporting continued racing in Queens.
Any plans involving the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga locations will not only have to pass the Legislature, but await the judge’s decision on NYRA’s claim of ownership.
So the end of the NYRA operating franchise on December 31 may not be the finish line at all.

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