Racing novice Christopher Kay was tapped Tuesday as the unanimous choice of the New York Racing Association board of directors to be the organization’s new president and CEO, effective July 1.
Kay, 60, most recently served as chief operating officer of The Trust for Public Land, where he oversaw operations for the land conservation organization’s headquarters and its field offices. Before that, he was a consultant to Universal Parks & Resorts and spent five years as COO for Toys R Us.
NYRA’s CEO position was vacated in May 2012 with the termination of Charlie Hayward for his alleged role in a takeout error that cost bettors millions of dollars and prompted a state takeover of the NYRA board. Following his departure, Ellen McClain ran day-to-day operations until May, when an interim management team took over briefly.
More than 100 applicants were considered by search consultants and a committee composed of NYRA board members. NYRA decided to go outside of the racing industry, board members said, because of the complexities facing the CEO, including returning the board to private hands in less than three years.
Regarding his lack of experience in racing, Kay said after the meeting he will consider hiring someone with a racing background to complement his relative inexperience.
As CEO, Kay will receive a $300,000 base salary and be eligible for another $250,000 in incentives.
NYRA board adviser John Hendrickson called Kay a proven leader and hoped he would surround himself with staff that has racing experience. While hospitality and entertainment are important parts of running a racetrack, he stressed that racing is still the most important issue.
Hendrickson added that the endorsement of NYRA board member Stuart Janney III, who was part of the search committee, was important.
“It made me feel better that Stuart Janney spoke up and said such great things about him, because I went in [to the meeting] thinking the CEO should have racing experience,” Hendrickson said.
He said he was excited for Kay to experience some of the Saratoga 150 celebration, which he said embodies the kind of enthusiasm that should be spread to NYRA’s racing communities at Aqueduct Race Track and Belmont Park.
“I’d be honored to give [Kay] a tour to show him the things that need to be fixed and the pride the community has in the people’s track,” Hendrickson said.
Kay said in a news release he was honored by the confidence from the NYRA board and promised to work hard to earn the respect of the fans of thoroughbred racing.
“Working with the talented professionals at NYRA and its dedicated and experienced board, I anticipate an exciting and successful future for our sport,” he said.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, Kay said the return of the NYRA board to private control after three years of this current board will be an opportunity to create something that can thrive for decades.
The salary for Kay was criticized by the Hotel Trades Council, which represents some of NYRA’s workforce. The new base salary is $175,000 less than what was budgeted for the position in 2012 and is much less than was recommended by a search consultant, which set a range of $600,000 to $1.1 million.
NYRA board Chairman David Skorton previously touted the incentives as a “fabulous” idea to attract a good candidate while not offering too large of a base salary, a concern to the board, considering NYRA’s status as a government-run entity.
Skorton stressed after the meeting that the incentive are not guaranteed.
“This is going to be performance-based, and I’m a hard grader,” he said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the NYRA board also agreed to start a new search for a firm to improve its online wagering platform. Global Betting Exchange was tentatively hired last week, but a review by state regulators of complaints about the bid process forced a new search to begin.
Global Betting Exchange will be allowed to bid in the new process.
NYRA board member Stuart Subotnick, who reviewed the state’s complaints, argued at Tuesday’s board meeting that most of the state’s points are wrong.
“There was one item [in the approved bid process that NYRA management] did not follow clearly,” he said.
Noting a desire not to be at odds with the state, though, Subotnick recommended a new bid process. He added this process has cost NYRA “a lot” of revenue and will mean a loss of $3 million to $5 million in additional revenue they anticipated generating in the fourth quarter of this year with the improved online wagering that would be created by Global Betting Exchange.
NYRA board member Leonard Riggio was not happy with the board’s decision to start the bid process over because of what he described as a technicality. Because the board’s audit committee reviewed and approved the initial bid process, he said the state’s questions represented a vote of no confidence in the new board.