Dave O’Rourke heads into his second Saratoga Race Course meet as New York Racing Association president and CEO under wildly, incomprehensibly different circumstances than he did in 2019.
He has worked in the NYRA front office for 12 years and was promoted to president and CEO on an interim basis in January of 2019, when Chris Kay resigned, then had the interim tag removed two months later.
Fast forward to the Saratoga meet, and NYRA was eager to show off its most ambitious capital improvement in years, the three-story 1863 Club on the first turn, offering a high-end viewing and dining experience for patrons. The meet was a huge hit, exceeding $700 million in betting handle for the first time and drawing over 1 million in paid admission.
Fast forward again, to the summer of 2020, and the 152nd meet, which opens on Thursday, will be like none we’ve ever seen, and not in a good way, with spectators barred from the grounds because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
O’Rourke and his staff still have a meet to run and have high — albeit greatly tempered — expectations for it, so we got him on the phone for a Q&A on Monday afternoon:
Q: When we were doing this a year ago, we were talking about the Beck concert at SPAC and the 1863 Club. How much different is it heading into this meet as opposed to last year in your first year as president and CEO?
A: Everything’s upside down, in terms of what this has done to our society. A lot of these terms end up sounding cliche, but there are really, really strange times where everyone has to put safety first. If you can function as a business, there is an immense amount of responsibility to put every resource possible into doing that as safely as possible for everybody involved.
Just listening to what you were saying about college sports [Union College canceled fall sports on Monday], in our sport, there are some inflection points where people are closer to each other than others, so we have to put a lot of focus on that, in terms of testing and protocols. But for the most part, we’re outside, there’s a lot of fresh air, so the risk level is a lot lower than per se some of the other sports you just mentioned a minute ago.
Q: Can you get me up to speed on fans and where we stand with the possibility of fans at some point, and even if you do get the green light in, say a couple of weeks, how quickly would you be able to mobilize your staff?
A: Right now, the request is for owners, and that outside. It’s a big property. If owners were to be on the backstretch, part of our proposal is that they would have a negative COVID test that would be registered with us. We’re asking for a limited amount of folks on the front side.
But in terms of fans — and we’ve been consistent with this — we would need two weeks’ lead time just to staff up and to train up. It’s [a] different group from the ownership group, so it’s going to require more personnel to enforce social distancing. It’s new for everyone. It’s new for the people involved in it, and it’s new for the people to perform in it as a job.
For some context on that, this is how quickly this is changing. Three weeks ago it felt like we likely would have a limited number of fans here. But given how far New York’s gone and really what’s going on outside of New York, we completely understand how it’s time for us to buckle down again and get through this.
So I’m less optimistic for this season, but things have changed in the last 100-120 days in terms of outlook.
Q: Since the shutdown, and then you started up again with no spectators, what kind of adjustments did you have to make from a a workforce standpoint?
A: In terms of the front side, a lot of our business up here is focused on hospitality. A lot of those are seasonal roles, so we haven’t done anywhere near the hiring that we traditionally do and would like to do. I’ve seen some of the same people here for 12 years, in terms of greeters, and they love it.
It’s actually a really cool part about coming up here. It is a seasonal workforce, but it almost seems like they’re family, because you see them every year, and they seem to love doing it.
But our workforce is obviously down. The front side of it, there’s no customers. Over on the training operations side, outside of capital projects that we would typically do, that’s relatively the same. It’ll be a bigger impact at Saratoga in terms of head count than at any other point except the Belmont Stakes.
Q: How much do you expect that some trainers will not come up here?
A: Some people are staying at Belmont, so that’s part of the impact. Some of the Kentucky folks aren’t sending full strings. They’re probably just sending their runners.
But we had some empty stalls last year. You have to expect that, just because of people’s willingness to travel and relocate with what’s going on.
Q: When you guys originally made the decision to come up here and not just stay at Belmont, what factors went into that decision, and was part of it that it was worth gambling that eventually [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo would give the green light and let fans in?
A: We started training up here. It’s part of the ecosystem, where the babies come up. So we wanted to get it open for training. As we were opening Belmont, you’re looking at a flattening curve, so there was optimism that, yeah, there”s a good potential that we’re going to have fans up there and there will be a positive economic impact.
The logistics behind it, TV and everything, this is not something you decide the week before. That was the thought process and the reality at the beginning of June.
In addition to that component, right now, we run year-round, and all the purses being generated are off of betting handle. So a big focus for us is to try and maintain the continuity of the racing program and trying to factor in what are the upside/downside risk factors and what can impact that.
A piece of that is will the casinos re-open? That is a revenue source specifically for the purse account.
Saratoga’s brand, obviously, is powerful, even as a purely TV product. As we were forecasting out the numbers, it made sense from a purse generation point to come up here for a couple of reasons. One, it outhandled Belmont. Two, the amount of TV exposure and the power of the brand. And three, if we were to stay downstate, we likely would’ve had to shift over to Aqueduct for a period of time because of the turf courses.
If you were able to have complete foresight back at the end of May, early June, could there maybe have been a different option of just an August meet? There’s tons of iterations. We were working off the information we had at the time.
At that time, we thought, more likely than not, we would have a limited number of fans here. We were highly confident in terms of what the handle projections and the purse generation would be, and we’re still confident on that part of the equation.
Q: How strange is it going to be for you working up here and not letting any fans through the turnstiles?
A: Really weird. You get focused on the task at hand because, even there’s no general public inside the gates, there’s different types of protocols, and you get consumed by the work at hand.
But then you have a moment where you were watching the Belmont Stakes, and this huge grandstand, and literally hear the hoofs as they cross the wire. It hits you on moments like that.
Like, up here, that first race is a tradition with the race call. That’s probably going to be the moment where it’s going to be ‘This is … ‘ It’s great to be racing , but it’s not a year that anyone’s really hoping to remember all that much.
You can’t wait ’til next year, man. This … it’s not cool.