NYRA to Saratoga fans: Time to pony up

I hear they’re clearing some trees at Saratoga Race Course next year to make room for a pavilion whe
Chris Kay, CEO and President of the New York Racing Association, discusses the upcoming Saratoga meet Monday at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion.
Chris Kay, CEO and President of the New York Racing Association, discusses the upcoming Saratoga meet Monday at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion.

I hear they’re clearing some trees at Saratoga Race Course next year to make room for a pavilion where you’ll be able to rent Xboxes and play video games.

The New York Racing Association hasn’t decided how much to charge to get in the pavilion yet, but it’ll be a small fee. The rental fee will be guest-friendly, too. They promise. But never mind that, because it’s all in the interest of enhancing your guest experience. They promise.

Ha. Just kidding. But I had you for a second, didn’t I?

It’s one thing to look under every pebble in the quest to turn a profit. That’s all that a corporation is about. And it isn’t NYRA president and CEO Chris Kay’s job to win a popularity contest.

But NYRA is playing with fire at Saratoga. People are — what is a “P” word I can use for angry? — perturbed. Perhaps there will come a point when that starts to reveal itself through the kind of metrics Kay prefers, like hotel tax revenue.

I almost have a perverse admiration for the way NYRA gouges people, then tries to convince the fans that it’s for their own good. That takes skill.

It’s easy to accuse complainers of being shrill, melodramatic and sentimental. Hey, the price of everything goes up. Deal with it.

Saratoga is different, though. It just is. People are possessive of it, and with that comes a protectiveness. They treat it like it’s their own property, with respect and love, so don’t screw with it. They’re not just mad about price increases. It goes way deeper than that.

I received a bunch of emails from readers on Tuesday after writing about Monday’s annual Saratoga preview press conference held at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion. They’re mad about the prices, sure, but also about cutting down trees in the backyard. They hate being referred to as “guests” instead of as racing fans, bettors and handicappers.

“NYRA is losing touch fast with the commoners,” one wrote.

“A sad day for the common man,” another said.

It’s telling that Kay said “Owners are the lifeblood of our sport” at the press conference, echoing a line he has used before.

But guess who gets bled.

Martin Panza, NYRA’s vice president of racing operations — he’s the guy who puts together the actual races— was not there, a departure from the 25 or so previous Saratoga previews I’ve covered. So I guess this wasn’t about, you know, racing.

Kay was there, of course. With creepy corporate Disneyspeak, he comes across like a smarmy con man, telling us why cancelling the free open house the Sunday before the meet starts is a good idea, for instance.

Or why paying to reserve a picnic table is a good idea.

Or why paying to reserve a table at the new sports bar on the ground floor of the Carousel is a good idea.

They just keep adding layers of cost to the fans and bettors. They continue to introduce pockets of exclusivity in what historically has been one of the most democratic places in the country, the racetrack.

Let’s start with the Carousel. Indisputably, it needed renovation, and is getting it. Great. But a sports bar? That tells me that NYRA has a low opinion of its own product.

Pay admission to get on the grounds, then pay more to reserve a table to watch baseball on TV. At the racetrack.

Oh, and don’t bother trying to bring a cooler into this area. They’re not allowed. Can’t wait to see the craft beer and food prices in the sports bar.

Then we have the new picnic tables. They’re bringing in 100 more and placing them in the coveted area between the paddock and the Big Red Spring, where people like to look at the horses warming up and being saddled before each race. There still will be 850 free tables on a first-come, first-served basis in the backyard, compressed into a smaller space. But the 100 new ones will cost you $40 on weekdays, $60 on weekends and $100 on Travers Day.

Kay is doing you a favor, he says, by eliminating the need to get to the track at 5 a.m. to wait in line and sprint to grab a table. But that’ll be $100 on Travers Day, and instead of giving that money to backstretch charities, as NYRA did when they first implemented the Travers table fee a few years ago, it has been going in NYRA’s pocket since 2013.

And watch, people will still gobble them up. NYRA knows this.

But Saratoga is about more than Travers Day. NYRA is risking the loss of the casual fan, who is more important to this track than any other of its properties.

After 34 years, the open house is no longer. Kay killed a fun event that gave people a free opportunity to walk the grounds and see for themselves, perhaps for the first time, the grandeur of Saratoga.

But the open house, which gave non-profits a venue to set up shop for the day, wasn’t performing up to NYRA’s liking. Kay said he walked around last year and didn’t think the open house was well attended. Translation: NYRA wasn’t making a thin dime off of it. This is the same operation that canceled Fan Appreciation Day — free admission on closing day — a few years ago.

But, hey, every Monday during the meet will be designated Family Day. Has Kay ever set foot in the backyard on a race day? Fans don’t need designated “Family Days.” Every day is family day back there.

Further manipulation comes in the form of the giveaway schedule.

The cooler bag will be given away on a Monday, Aug. 3, and the umbrella is scheduled for a Wednesday, Aug. 19. This is NYRA trying to prop up weak attendance days, which are weak, in part, because of NYRA’s own decision to bolster the weekend “must-see” “big events” by clustering stakes races on Saturdays and Sundays.

This tent-pole approach results in some lousy, unappealing racing during the week and threatens to homogenize Saratoga as merely an extension of the Belmont Park meets, instead of being the day-to-day boutique showcase that it had been.

At the risk of sounding like the Lorax or Chicken Little, someday Saratoga will be indistinguishable from other racetracks, except for the graceful roofscape. Six of the trees you can see the tops of from the roof will be gone when the meet starts, cut down to make room for a new museum.

It’s a move that is “sickening” to one reader who emailed and considers herself “not a guest, but a woman who loves horses and [is] a pretty decent handicapper.”

She suggested that Kay read Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.”

It wouldn’t do any good.

He’d miss the forest.

Categories: Sports


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