Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Betting the favorite

At the close of the year, Governor Protractor’s dozen years in office will undoubtedly go down as the administration known for its cronyism and being ridden with more unbridled political patronage than any in the written history of the Empire State. There is a chance that some of the traders from the Dutch West India Company were a bit more corrupt, but then again, the lens of political clarity is often fogged by the passing of four centuries.

With only a scant few months remaining in the governor’s office, the Pataki Administration is now doing it’s best to live up to its legacy. As the moving vans idle in Albany, the governor’s cronies are filling up as many gunnysacks as they can with loot grabbed from the capital. And perhaps the crown jewel of this plunder is the contract to run the state’s three race tracks and lucrative video lottery terminal contracts.

Simply put, the decision the state Legislature must make is between running a not-for-profit venture, as has been the case with the oft-sullied New York Racing Association, and making the whole shebang a for-profit agency, as would be the case if the contract is given to the megalithic Empire Racing Association.

True, NYRA hasn’t done the best job at running the tracks; over the years, they’ve accrued a fairly substantial debt and a reputation for pocketing a few dollars from the take, according to an audit by the state Comptroller’s Office. And now in the last year of its contract, NYRA desperately needs a state-promised $19 million bailout to avoid a nasty bankruptcy proceeding.

Enter Governor Protractor.

Throwing his weight around behind the scenes like an oversized gorilla, Pataki is doing the best he can to ensure the flailing organization doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of presiding over the state’s tracks by the end of 2007. First, he helped to gum up plans to put video lottery terminals down at Aqueduct, even though the Saratoga Gamming and Raceway got their share of the machines two years ago. Who holds the contract to install the machines? MGM, which is also known as one of the many companies that are interested in having a piece of the pie if NYRA is banished.

And now, Pataki’s leaning on his appointee-laced Racing Association Oversight Board to stall the release of bailout funds until NYRA chokes on debt. Were NYRA to go belly-up into chapter 11 proceedings, they would still finish out their contract with the state. But such a public relations nightmare would likely sway any legislative opinion against renewing a contract with the flailing organization.

Odd as it may sound, Pataki is working to choke the love child bore from his own administration; with nearly a third of NYRA’s 28-member board of trustees being appointed by the governor, there’s no doubt Pataki has more than a commanding stake in NYRA, which is exactly why he wants it trashed.

Once a new administration is installed next year, which is most likely to be that of democrat Eliot Spitzer, Pataki’s stake in racing will rapidly ebb. But with the state’s tracks privatized, there’s a chance he can still dip his greasy paws into the honey pot of thoroughbred racing. Time will only tell why he’s betting on Empire Racing as his favorite.

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