NYRA's financial woes could close Belmont

Rajiv Maragh rides Diamondrella across the finish line Rajiv Maragh rides Diamondrella across the finish line for the 7th race during the Belmont Stakes in Elmont on June 06, 2009. Photo Credit: Newsday File / Ana P. Gutierrez

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No Belmont Stakes in 2010?

"It's possible," said Charles Hayward, president of the New York Racing Association, if the state doesn't soon award a long-awaited video lottery terminal franchise at Aqueduct.

Falling attendance, uncollected debts, and the continuing delay in expected VLT payments have led the operator of the state's racing tracks at Aqueduct, Saratoga and Belmont to warn it could run out of cash for payroll before the third leg of racing's Triple Crown, scheduled for June 5.

NYRA might not open Belmont Park at all next year, Hayward warned Monday, if by April it still has neither the revenue stream from the franchise agreement nor a firm financial commitment from the state.

"We've got to feel confident we have enough cash to run through the third week in July," he said.

Gov. David A. Paterson and state legislative leaders have been unable so far to agree on a winner from among five bidders for the Aqueduct franchise. The racing association also is waiting for a total of $18.2 million owed by the insolvent New York City OTB, which is undergoing reorganization. The tracks have seen revenue decline by 8 to 9 percent annually, Hayward said, and Belmont has had to put in a costly new drainage system to prevent horse manure from fouling groundwater.

NYRA's franchise agreement binds the state to negotiate in good faith to support its operating, capital and pension expenses until VLT operations begin, Hayward said.

But a $30 million cushion the state provided NYRA will be down to about $11 million by year's end.

Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook said talks are continuing with legislative leaders on the VLT franchise and that the state will "work closely with NYRA to navigate any potential fiscal difficulties." But, Hook said, "we are still awaiting final information from NYRA on their 2010 budget and cash-flow assumptions - something they have yet to provide."

State Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), whose district includes Elmont, the site of Belmont Park, said NYRA's woes confirm his vote two years ago against putting it in charge of the race tracks. "NYRA just can't get the job done," he said.

Elmont's other state senator, Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), blamed Paterson and Democratic leaders for the lack of progress, calling Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) "an obstacle" to Belmont's development. Silver's office declined to comment.

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