SARATOGA SPRINGS — The New York Racing Association announced Wednesday that CEO and President Christopher Kay, who has lead efforts to make major improvements at Saratoga Racecourse in recent years, has resigned, effective immediately.
NYRA did not provide an explanation for the abrupt departure in a press release issued from its Ozone Park headquarters. David O’Rourke, NYRA’s senior vice president and chief revenue officer, has been named interim CEO, according to a prepared statement from NYRA.
The Daily Racing Form cited multiple anonymous sources in reporting that the NYRA board – high-powered figures in New York racing – asked for Kay’s resignation after learning that Kay used NYRA employees to do private work at the house he owns in Saratoga, in a breach of company policy.
Kay had been president and CEO of the racing association since 2013 and was a daily presence in Saratoga Springs during the six-week Saratoga Racecourse meets. Saratoga County property tax records show him as owning a home at 31 Magnolia Drive – a property assessed for $724,638.
The dates for this year’s summer meet have yet to be announced – information which has nearly always been made public before mid-January. There has been no explanation for why dates haven’t been provided, and a NYRA spokesman on Wednesday did not respond to a request for comment on that or Kay’s departure.
NYRA oversees horse racing at three tracks, including Saratoga and the Belmont and Aqueduct tracks in the New York City area.
The meet is the economic engine of the Saratoga summer economy, which annual economic impact studies have estimated at well over $200 million. Paid attendance last summer exceeded 1.1 million for the third consecutive year.
O’Rourke joined NYRA in 2008 as director of financial planning. Since 2011, he has been responsible for NYRA’s business development strategies across a range of disciplines, including industry relations, simulcast markets and contracts, television, and capital projects.
Kay was named president and CEO in 2013 and was at the helm when the association became a private entity. Kay, 65, previously served as chief operating officer of The Trust for Public Land and, before that, as a consultant to Universal Parks & Resorts and chief operating officer for Toys R Us. He did not have any racing background before joining NYRA, but he credited with promoting racing and improving NYRA’s finances.
Saratoga Racecourse is seeing construction of a new multi-million-dollar luxury clubhouse, its biggest improvement in a half-century and a project Kay championed. The project, called the 1863 clubhouse after the first year of racing at the historic track, is supposed to be finished in time for the summer meet.
Since 2013, NYRA has made numerous other upgrades at the Saratoga track and in the backstretch area where many workers live during the summer meet. During his tenure, Kay promoted the Belmont Stakes during two years in which a horse won the Triple Crown, completing it at Belmont – American Pharoah in 2015, and Justify in 2018.
After highly promoted drama about whether he would come to Saratoga, American Pharoah ran in the 2015 Travers and lost; Justify retired after the Triple Crown campaign and did not appear at Saratoga.
The Belmont property, meanwhile, is the subject of a $1 billion state-supported redevelopment plan that could include construction of a new arena for the New York Islanders. That plan has generated local concern about traffic and other environmental impacts.
Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, cited Kay’s accomplishments, saying he strengthened the relationship between NYRA and the downtown Saratoga Springs business community.
“If you think of what he’s accomplished, it’s actually pretty impressive,” Shimkus said. “He ended state control of NYRA, something a lot of people thought would never happen. NYRA has made money every year of his tenure, and they’ve invested a lot of money into the track and the facilities and in the 1863 club.”
Shimkus said it was Kay who moved the post-draws for the meet’s biggest stakes races — the Whitney and Travers — to downtown locations, bringing trainers, jockeys, owners and other horse people into the city’s center.
“It created a real connection,” he said. “That was a small thing, but that was his idea.”
The NYRA press release said that, under Kay’s direction, NYRA improved the quality and safety of racing operations at all its tracks, enhanced the overall guest experience and returned to private control after several years under state oversight because of past mismanagement.
State Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, represents Saratoga Springs and is ranking Republican on the Senate Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee. She said on Wednesday that the future of the New York Racing Association “is incredibly important to me, to our community, and to our entire state.”
“I look forward to sitting down with David O’Rourke to ensure a smooth transition at NYRA and address issues important to Saratoga, home of the Travers and a world renowned destination for horseracing, gaming and entertainment,” Jordan said in a prepared statement. “I want Saratoga to continue attracting the very best in horseracing, and it begins with having a strong and responsive NYRA and making sure Saratoga’s specific concerns are heard.”