Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Keehn named to racing panel

Keehn named to racing panel
PAUL POST, The Saratogian

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SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Mayor Valerie Keehn has been named to a state panel charged with developing a request for proposals for parties bidding on the franchise to run New York's three main thoroughbred tracks.
She is one of the last three appointees to the Committee on the Future of Racing, all selected by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. His other appointees are Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee Chairman Gary Pretlow, D-Yonkers, and Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, D-Queens, whose district includes Aqueduct Race Track.
Silver's selections give the committee a long-awaited full complement of nine members.
'I don't think you have to be a horse racing expert to listen, educate yourself and make an intelligent decision,' Keehn said. 'It's not a bad thing to be more objective and more distant from something than somebody whose life revolves around that industry.'
About 50 racing leaders testified before the committee two weeks ago at hearings held in Albany and New York City. Everyone from Hall of Fame trainers to Off Track Betting officials gave input about how racing should be run after the New York Racing Association's contract expires on Dec. 31, 2007.
The committee, which will meet again Monday in New York City, must now begin the arduous task of boiling down testimony and formulating an RFP.
'I'm sure that this committee is anxious to get moving ahead but also is not going to hurry the process,' Keehn said.
She said she's primarily interested in making sure the RFP contains measures that will protect Saratoga Race Course's unique character: exclusive race dates, maintaining the track's spring and fall training seasons, historic preservation and increased tax revenues.
Finance Commissioner Matt McCabe has said the city should get a greater share of the admissions tax and OTB surcharges. At present, the city gets 50 percent of the general admissions tax levied by Saratoga County. From OTB, the county gets the first $1,658,000 generated and the city gets 15 percent of anything beyond that to a certain point.
State law prohibits Saratoga Springs from levying its own admissions tax. Only cities with at least 1 million people are allowed to collect such fees. The state Legislature is expected to make considerable changes to state racing law this year, and McCabe has said this section should be revised so that Saratoga Springs can adopt an admissions tax, too.
Keehn supports each of these proposals.
The committee, chaired by former state GOP Chairman Patrick Barrett, has been meeting since last fall. Other panel members are all Republican appointees, named by Gov. George Pataki and state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, whose district includes Saratoga Springs.
A state edict called for Pataki, Bruno and Silver to fill the board by Dec. 1, but Silver was late. Other committee members with local ties are Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Sackatoga Stable, which produced Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide, state Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro and Albany businessmen Ed Swyer and John Nigro.
Knowlton is the only true horseman in the group, which also includes Manhattan attorney Fred Newman. Critics say a group charged with making decisions crucial to the industry should have more racing experts, but Keehn disagreed.
'Sometimes you can be too close to a subject, to not be able to pull yourself back and not let your emotions affect your judgment,' she said. 'We need to lay it all out on the table, every option we can possibly think of, listen to people who are responding to the RFP process and in the end put together the best package we can that responds to the needs of racing in New York state.'
Committee spokesman Scott Rief said, 'We are pleased that the speaker has named his representatives. The committee looks forward to building on the success of last month's public hearings and welcomes the input of each of the panel's members as we continue to move this process forward in a timely and prudent way.'
Keehn said she met with Silver and Assemblyman Ron Canastrari, who district includes a portion of southern Saratoga County, about a month ago. She said she urged Silver to consider a local representative and had an appointee in mind.
'I had no inkling that he was going to name me,' she said.
Keehn said Silver's office first contacted her about the appointment last week.

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