SARATOGA SPRINGS — Visitors to Saratoga Race Course will have a new way to watch the ponies when the summer meet starts Friday — on their smartphones.
The option comes through a new app called NYRA XP, which connects people with a live-streaming service called NYRA NOW. The video service taps into six HD cameras placed around the property, allowing visitors to customize their viewing experience, said Chris Kay, president and CEO of the New York Racing Association, which oversees thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs and across the state.
“Everyone is using their cellphone more and more and more, and we are providing more and more and more ways for you to enjoy the Saratoga Race Course on your cellphone,” Kay said.
The decision to launch the app came out of strategic discussions held during a private meeting May 3, Kay said. It was the NYRA board’s first meeting after the state gave up five years of control over the organization, in April.
“We have a very talented board that has a lot to offer, and now we can have private meetings where all that talent can actually be offered to help the management team make NYRA even stronger — without having our competitors listening in to our board meetings, as they have in the past,” Kay said.
Kay, who once worked as chief operating officer for Toys R Us, touted the new app as “an incredible way to convert your cellphone into a remote-control device” at the track. In addition to offering video of the races, the app also allows people to place bets via the NYRA Bets program, buy tickets or reserve parking. It even makes it easy for users to download the Uber app to their phones.
Later on in the meet, app users will be able to order food at some restaurants on site, as well.
“To my knowledge, we’re the first race track in America that will provide this kind of service to our guests on a daily basis,” Kay said.
He said the technology was first used at Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers NFL team.
“I think our fans are going to have an even better experience this year than they did last year — and last year was a great experience,” he said, pointing to the addition of three massive HD video boards in the backyard and two-dozen HD televisions in the Fourstardave Sports Bar before the 2016 meet. “This year, everybody is going to have their own video board if they bring their phone with them.”
Visitors to the track — assuming they look up from their smartphones — may notice a new slate roof on the paddock mutuel building at the center of the grounds “consistent with the original construction,” Kay said.
The 15,400-square-foot structure was built in 1902 and features a dramatic roofline, with wood trusses and iron tie rods. Originally used as a saddling shed where horsemen could perform the pre-race paddock ritual during inclement weather, the building was converted to racing offices and mutuel bays in the 1970s.
Kay also drew attention to renovations made to the children’s playground area, including an oval track and a “starting gate, if you will, for children.”
“That is, in my opinion, extremely important, because we need to always be creating new generations of fans,” he said.
Across Union Avenue, near the Oklahoma Training Track, the 19 dormitories where backstretch workers take up residence have all been remodeled in recent years, with the last four being renovated since the last track season, Kay said.
Safety features have also been added at the Oklahoma track, including an audio system to alert riders if another rider falls off a horse and a safer rail system between the dirt track and the turf. The same improved rail system has been installed at the main track.
All of the improvements contribute to about $29 million in capital investments made at the track since 2013, Kay said.
“We’ve made a commitment every year to enhance the guest experience, and you can see it throughout the property,” he said.
What fans won’t see is a much-discussed At the Rail clubhouse, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made. In June, NYRA hired New York City-based SOSH Architects to design the facility, which will have hospitality venues for banquets, outdoor dining terraces and rentable suites, just west of the current clubhouse.
“We’re working with them now on the initial design plans,” Kay said. “This is going to be a long process. These things don’t happen overnight.”
A ‘new’ board
After becoming private again in June, NYRA named a new board, though the members are mostly the same as served on the previous board. Kay acknowledged that much, saying it was important to have continuity in the membership. The state took over NYRA in 2012, after years of financial troubles and management scandals.
“The same people that helped guide us out of the state control are taking us forward now in the future,” said Kay, who came on as president and CEO of NYRA in 2013.
The biggest change for the 17-member board, he said, is the meeting style: behind closed doors.
“We can have free-flowing discussion with some extremely talented board members who have a vast array of different experiences,” he said.
Board members include New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president Richard Violette; Jeffrey Cannizzo, executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders; and Georgeanna “Georgie” Nugent, a partner with Epona Racing Stable in Saratoga Springs.
Bobby Flay, a horse-racing enthusiast known more for his Food Network cooking shows, is also on the board. Michael Del Giudice, the chairman of Rockland Capital, a New York City-based private equity firm, continues to serve as NYRA board chairman.
Betting on a quality experience
The racetrack drew 1,123,544 paying customers in 2016, surpassing the record set the year before by 5.4 percent.
On the possibility of trackgoers breaking the record again this year — Kay would not wager a guess.
“You’ll never hear me make a projection about attendance,” he said.
That’s because NYRA doesn’t make its money from people simply showing up.
“We make money based on people wagering,” he said.
“In prior administrations, they tried to focus on attendance,” said Kay, who came on as president and CEO in 2013. “We focus on the quality of experience people have at the racetrack … which converts to people wagering.”