With just weeks remaining before the meet at Saratoga Race Course, the state Racing Fan Advisory Council is asking the New York Racing Association to re-evaluate its practices to avoid the negative experience many attendees had at this year’s Belmont Stakes.
Fans attending the third leg of the Triple Crown paid double to get into the grandstand over regular admission and were greeted with a host of issues, including inadequate restrooms, excessive concession prices, a malfunctioning public address system and no cellphone or WiFi service. Afterward, the council found the disorderly mass exodus of the roughly 102,000 paid fans created a host of “frustrating and potentially dangerous situations,” including one pedestrian bridge that had to be evacuated due to structural concerns from the number of people crowded onto it.
“The council, and any reasonable fan, understands an event of such magnitude — with more than 100,000 fans in attendance — will inevitably have logistical issues and areas in which to improve for the future,” stated chairman Patrick Connors in a five-page letter to NYRA President Chris Kay. “Yet, given the recent history of similarly large crowds at the event over the last 13 years, the hosts should have been far better prepared to accommodate fans attending this year’s Belmont Stakes Day.”
The council also found NYRA oversold the event and failed to provide adequate security to police some of the reserved-seating tickets that ranged in price from $20 to $150. Fans had issues finding assigned seats and often found they were already occupied by someone who hadn’t purchased reserved seating.
“Many of these ‘squatters’ were intoxicated and uncooperative,” Connors stated in the letter. “In multiple instances, NYRA security was nowhere to be found to defuse the situation, leaving those who paid for seats to fend for themselves.”
Connors is asking Kay and Lynn LaRocca — recently hired to the newly created position of chief experience officer — to attend a public fan forum during the meet in Saratoga Springs at some point in August. At the forum, he’s requesting they address the issues raised at Belmont, discuss ways to improve future marquee racing events and commit greater attention to customer service.
LaRocca and other NYRA staffers did not respond to requests for comment.
The critical letter comes as NYRA continues its state-ordered reorganization, a three-year process that began in October 2012 and is aimed at transforming the agency in the wake of a betting take-out scandal. The four-member Racing Fan Advisory Council was created to generate ideas to enhance the quality of the fan experience at New York tracks.
In a report released last year, the council made a host of recommendations and suggested the Belmont Stakes would be “an excellent opportunity” to showcase thoroughbred racing and entice fans back to the track on other race days. These recommendations included lowering the cost of concessions, allowing fans to bring their own food and offsetting admission price increases with other promotions to enhance the experience.
Instead, the report found NYRA conducted the stakes “with an eye toward maximizing revenue” during a race that was being eagerly watched by prospective fans.
“What was a rare opportunity to bring new fans to the sport was instead marred by embarrassing missteps that all but ensured those potential fans would not become a part of New York’s storied horse racing legacy,” Connors stated. “NYRA must now take significant steps to ensure that fans attending its future marquee race days enjoy their experience.”
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette: