NEW YORK (AP) — You can't bet on the biggest longshot at Belmont Park — not yet, anyway.
The finish line is still far off, but for a tiny Indian tribe eking out a living in the heart of one the world's richest communities, Long Island's famed racetrack could be the place where their fortunes change.
As the thoroughbred racing world turns its attention to Saturday's 141st Belmont Stakes, members of the Shinnecock Indian tribe have said in recent days they are willing to consider Belmont Park as the location for the casino they want to open.
The track is located just outside New York City, meaning millions in the metropolitan area could satisfy a gambling yen without a trip to Atlantic City or to Indian-run casinos in Connecticut, both at least 90 minutes away. But there are many hurdles to leap before the roulette wheels start spinning.
The Shinnecock, whose earlier plans for a casino in Southampton sent shudders through their wealthy neighbors in 2003, reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior last week that speeds up the process for the tribe to receive formal recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs — necessary before any tribe can even consider opening a gambling facility. Tribal representatives were in Washington on Wednesday, where they were expected to make their case for federal recognition, which the tribe has been seeking since 1978.
"As Indian people, even though we've maintained who we are for generations, and surrounded by some of the wealthiest communities in the country, perhaps this recognition will help some of our neighbors better understand us and foster a new mutual respect," said Shinnecock trustee Randy King.
"We have long prided ourselves on the good relationship we have had with the state of New York and the local community around our reservation," Shinnecock trustee Gordell Wright said. "We fully intend to remain good neighbors as we pursue opportunities to provide jobs for our people."
Interior Department officials are reviewing ancestral records and other historical documents of the tribe before determining whether the Shinnecocks meet the recognition criteria, said BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling. The tribe had sought to circumvent the federal approval process by seeking recognition in federal court, but a judge rejected that effort in 2007.
Even with federal recognition, the tribe would have to have other federal and state approvals. A preliminary decision on recognition is expected by Dec. 15, and final approval could come sometime next year. In addition to being able to operate a casino, the Shinnecock would be eligible for federal grants and other funding.
The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which runs one of two of Connecticut's lucrative casinos — Foxwoods — said it wished the Shinnecock well in its bid for federal recognition, but spokeswoman Lori A. Potter declined comment on whether it supports a possible Shinnecock casino.
"The people in the surrounding communities have indicated support," said Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi; the track, about 70 miles from the Shinnecock reservation in Southampton, is in his county.
"This could be a home run. Belmont is the ideal location both for the operators of a casino, the residents and the local governments. If it is going to be in the region, I'd rather see it at Belmont," Suozzi added.
Tribal leaders are keeping their intentions close to the vest, saying only that they are willing to negotiate with state leaders on a location for any casino. "Anything between Suffolk (on eastern Long Island) and the Catskills could be an appropriate site," said Shinnecock trustee Fred Bess.
Added King: "We're even willing to consider locations not currently on the table."
But Belmont seems to be getting much of the attention from politicians handicapping the possibilities. State and local officials have been discussing improvements at Belmont and its surrounding community for the past several years. There has been talk of building hotels and restaurants, but few concrete proposals have come to fruition.
Suozzi, a possible contender for statewide office in 2010, said he would want to ensure school districts and local governments benefit from the income a casino would bring, and said many other questions remained before he would give his full endorsement. "We'd like to see enhancements to the local community as part of any agreement," he said.
About 500 Shinnecock tribal members now live in modest homes on a 1,200-acre reservation in Southampton. Nearby, some of the richest people in the world, including Wall Street power brokers and Hollywood celebrities, have sprawling estates worth tens of millions.
As a seaside tribe, the Shinnecocks for decades depended on fishing and whaling to support themselves. Later, the nation leased its land to local area farmers for their crops, mainly potatoes and corn.
Many of those still on the reservation work as craftspeople and artists. Others work in a variety of mainstream jobs around Long Island. They see the prospects of a casino, and the millions it could bring, as a way out of their modest circumstances.
An earlier tribal proposal to open a casino near their Southampton property ignited a stir, with some officials claiming the bucolic beauty of Long Island's east end would be adversely impacted by the influx of thousands of gamblers — not just in the summer when the Hamptons' population surges, but year-round.
A casino at Belmont, where there are major highways nearby, as well as a Long Island Rail Road station, would ease those concerns.
When the Shinnecocks broke ground in 2003 on their proposed Southampton casino, town officials raced into federal court and got an injunction to stop it. Since then, Suffolk County officials formed a task force to study the issue; County Executive Steve Levy said he is waiting for the results of that study before taking a position.
Outside the Elmont Public Library on Wednesday, residents had differing views of a Belmont casino's impact on the community.
"The biggest factor that bothers me is the excess traffic," said Giovanni Soto. "I'm not concerned with regards to crime and stuff. I've been to other casinos and it seems in general that hasn't been a problem."
Zahid Chaudry said he wanted no part of a casino. "It's just going to be a hangout for the wrong crowd," he said. "The crowd that just wants to make fast money easily. They're not working for it and that's not the type of people the hard-working people of Elmont want."
Jean Charles agreed that a casino at Belmont "is a longshot." But he said he would welcome it if it happened. "I think we're grown up enough to handle a casino. It would bring in good money."
A spokesman for a Democratic state senator in the area called the Belmont idea "an intriguing and exciting possibility." Republican state Sen. Dean Skelos's spokesman said more information is needed, but he "would be open" to an Indian-run casino at Belmont.
The Shinnecocks have also expressed interest in nearby Aqueduct racetrack, and said it is still a possibility.
New York Gov. David Paterson's administration is reviewing bids now for by several consortiums that want to run a video slot machine center at Aqueduct, about five minutes' ride from Belmont. The state was counting on about $250 million in annual revenue from 4,500 video slot machines and jobs for 1,200 people at the Queens track.
In March, the original bid winner, Buffalo-based Delaware North, said the credit collapse on Wall Street forced it to seek a restructuring of its video slots proposal because it could no longer provide the $370 million in upfront payments to the state.
Alan Meister, an economist with the Los Angeles-based Analysis Group, compiles the annual Indian Gaming Industry Report. He said so-called "racinos" have become popular at racetracks around the country in recent years; one such racino operates at Yonkers Raceway, north of New York City. He said because the Shinnecocks have yet to commit to a location or type of gambling operation, it is difficult to predict success.
"There is a potential to grow the market," Meister conceded.
Meister's report for 2007 — the latest figures available — noted that 230 tribes were operating 425 gaming facilities in 28 states, generating $26.5 billion in gaming revenue, a 5 percent increase over the previous year.