Efforts to rush through legislation allowing the Western Regional Off Track Betting Corp. to reopen the Batavia Downs harness track were set back Tuesday when a Senate committee chairman suddenly decided to shelve the matter.
Sen. William Larkin had told Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, that the bill would emerge from his committee Tuesday and be one step closer to passage, but he delayed consideration of the bill amid a fierce lobbying campaign by the track and its competitors.
Larkin, an Orange County Republican, said he held the bill, sponsored by Rath, when a number of "unanswered questions" arose about past payments the track may owe racing entities and concerns over the constitutionality of allowing an off-track betting operation to run a racetrack. He did not elaborate.
"We want to take a look at both sides of this issue," said Larkin, whose district is near Monticello Racetrack, a Sullivan County harness track which, along with several other privately owned tracks, is fighting the OTB's attempt to reopen Batavia Downs.
Monticello is upset, among other things, because Western Regional OTB has refused to accept its simulcasting signal of races at the downstate track since last year -- costing the track at least $100,000 in lost betting wagers.
Moreover, the tracks are concerned about competing for a dwindling share of the betting dollar against a facility that is essentially owned by the government. OTB, a public benefit corporation, must share its proceeds with 15 counties and two cities from the region.
They argue that it is also unfair that taxpayers bail out a racetrack that died in private hands. Western Regional OTB in 1998 became the first OTB to buy, for $2.5 million, a racetrack in New York. But it can't run races there unless its gets a change in the law that bans OTBs from operating racetracks.
Sen. John Bonacic, a Republican who represents Monticello Racetrack, said Western Regional OTB acted "vindictive" last year when it refused to show races from Monticello at its OTB facilities. That action cut into bets made on Monticello races, which hurt the track's finances.
He called the owning of a racetrack by an OTB a clear conflict of interest "that doesn't meet the smell test."
Bonacic said the addition of Batavia, owned, in essence, by the government, will make it harder for other ailing tracks to get their races shown -- and to be bet on -- at OTB parlors around the state. He said the opposition to Batavia Downs that has surfaced in recent days, which includes Monticello and tracks in Westchester County and outside Utica, will remain unless those tracks are financially protected by allowing Batavia Downs to reopen. "It comes down to sharing of the pots," he said.
A spokesman for Rath, John Emery, continued to voice optimism Tuesday. "It's something that is being worked on, and we still anticipate that something will happen on it, that a bill will pass eventually," he said.
OTB officials could not be reached to comment.