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VLT plan in place for Aqueduct

8/23/2010

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- It appears that a decade of acrimony, strife and uncertainty is about at its end in New York, giving way potentially (don't start counting chickens, now; remember, we're talking about New York) to an era of unprecedented prosperity at the state's racetracks and breeding farms.

All required signatures, except those of the attorney general and controller, are recorded on an agreement that will set the wheels of progress in motion by approving the award, at long last, of the right to construct and operate a complex at Aqueduct Racetrack that will revolve around 4,500 video lottery terminals, which most expect will change the face of racing here for years to come and for the better.

The relative standing of the New York State government on the national corruption and incompetence curve is open to debate, but undoubtedly the chutzpah of the political class here is established as peerless. Without fluttering an eyelash, the state's politicians have allowed racing in the nation's most important market to languish in uncertainty and the industry to contract like a raisin in a microwave, while the taxpayers, without direct interest in the establishment of alternative gaming at Aqueduct, see some $1 million a day go unrealized. Finally, in the face of public and civic outcry that was the background music of springtime and early summer in New York, lottery officials, legislative leaders and the governor reached a decision that was a decade and countless bizarre twists in the making.

So, what now?

The Malaysia-based Genting Corporation, chosen as operator of the Aqueduct facility, has a long and impressive record in the gaming, resort, hospitality and travel industries. It has interests in successful enterprises in Singapore, Malaysia, Europe and the United States. There could have been no better choice.

Genting projects that it will have the first complement of video lottery terminals, which will include electronic roulette and baccarat, operational in about six months. The entire 4,500-machine facility should be ready within about a year and a complex that will include several restaurants, a sports bar, VIP accommodations, shuttle service to Kennedy International Airport, a sky bridge to a nearby subway station and other amenities should be complete in about 18 months. Most impressive, however, is Genting's plan to integrate the racing experience into most areas of the facility.

"Whenever possible," a Genting official said during a presentation of its plans to a senate panel, "windows will provide a view of the racetrack."

Old Aqueduct hands are having a difficult time digesting the thought of the crumbling, leaky, rusty, vermin infested monument to neglect in Queens providing an entertaining and engaging experience, but it appears that Genting is bound in that direction. The result will, no doubt, be the nation's most lavish "racino" in the lap of its most densely populated city. The potential is almost without limit.

Imagine what benefits this holds for racing and breeding in New York.

A decade ago, the original enabling legislation was followed by an influx of broodmares and stallions to the many farms that dot the upstate New York countryside and a more aggressive breeder willing to absorb the cost of sending mares to proven Kentucky stallions in the interest of improving the state's gene pool. The wait, however, was longer than the useful breeding lives of most thoroughbreds and eventually more promising prospects in other states, notably Pennsylvania, resulted in an opposite and equal outflow of bloodstock. Farms failed. Stallions have been sold and sent to places such as Russia and Italy. Other farms hang on by a thread and the promotional phrase, "New York-breds, they start with an advantage," long ago went silent.

But the events of this summer, provided the plan is indeed executed, will stem the tide, return what was once the nation's most lucrative program of breeder incentives to its former stature and result in the production of a more robust, valuable product.

It will also bring a better class of racehorse to the state, replacing a flagging population that has been all too evident in the product offered this summer at Saratoga. We have seen horses race at the Spa during the current meeting that not long ago would have been denied, by rule, entry to the grounds of any track in New York -- maidens with 10 starts that have failed to finish a race in the first four. While the stakes program remains worthy of Saratoga and 2-year-olds have, as always, shown the first blush of development in progress here, the racing product this summer has, in the main, been less than ordinary.

This, in summers to come, may be a bad memory. With voracious machines and enthusiastic gamblers in Queens feeding a level of purses unprecedented until the advent of the VLT era in New York City -- future Saratoga will be an improved version of the unsustainable Monmouth meeting, but longer, richer and six days a week.

Finally, prosperity at all three tracks and the in-progress dismantling and reassembly of the bankrupt New York City Off-Track Betting Corp., hopefully into a profitable enterprise, will afford NYRA the opportunity to suspend racing during the coldest parts of the year -- Thanksgiving to St. Patrick's Day.

As difficult as it is to imagine, the possibility is at hand for the game to be good again in New York -- perhaps better than ever.

But the players have not changed, so let's not count chickens just yet.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.