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What you need to know for 01/21/2017

New NYRA head: Heat won't mean cancellation of opening day

Saratoga Experience

New NYRA head: Heat won't mean cancellation of opening day

Racing novice Chris Kay plans on sticking around for many years as the head of the New York Racing A
New NYRA head: Heat won't mean cancellation of opening day
NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay speaks at a news conference at the Saratoga Race Course on Wednesday afternoon.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Racing novice Chris Kay plans on sticking around for many years as the head of the New York Racing Association.

The newly minted CEO sat down with members of the media Wednesday at Saratoga Race Course, where he expressed his desire to stay put long after completing his main task, devising a process for the NYRA board of directors — now controlled by the state — to return to private control in the fall of 2015.

Kay, who began work July 1, will get his first taste of Saratoga racing Friday, when the 40-day meet kicks off. There have been some concerns about racing being canceled Friday because of temperatures that could approach 100, but that seemed unlikely Wednesday. The last time racing was canceled because of heat was in 2006.

“There is no intention to cancel opening day,” he said. “We have had warm days here in the past. We are prepared for it.”

Precautions will include hosing down horses and having additional ice available.

Kay said much of the summer meet’s success, specifically the attendance and amount wagered, is dependent on weather. If the weather is accommodating, he said, the hope is to attract more than the 900,000 fans who came last year and to exceed last year’s gambling totals.

One potential obstacle to a good start was a boil-water advisory at the track issued briefly this week by the state Department of Health after irregular chlorine levels raised concerns about the safety of the water.

“All those issues have been resolved,” Kay said.

This will also be the first Saratoga meet with a state-controlled NYRA board, put in place last fall following a string of scandals, including an error in the takeout on winning bets that cost bettors millions. It was this error that resulted in the firing of then-NYRA President and CEO Charlie Hayward, who was temporarily replaced by Ellen McClain and then a three-person leadership team this spring.

Kay, 60, most recently 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 was selected from more than 100 applicants.

NYRA’s board previously said Kay was chosen because of what will be needed to devise a plan to return the board to private control in less than three years. That task and putting NYRA on a stronger financial foundation, addressing capital improvements and developing an effective management team will be among the responsibilities he needs to complete to receive $250,000 in annual incentives, on top of a base salary of $300,000.

NYRA board Chairman David Skorton previously stressed the incentive is not guaranteed, saying, “This is going to be performance-based, and I’m a hard grader.”

After Wednesday’s news conference, board member Rick Violette said, “[Kay] has an incredible task ahead of him, and if he succeeds he will be woefully underpaid.”

An outside report commissioned by NYRA estimated the CEO should be paid between $600,000 and $1.1 million. The previous base pay for the position was $475,000.

Based on the board’s background in racing and his own ability to learn new industries quickly, Kay said he didn’t expect a long learning curve in his new position. Despite this, he might add a strong racing person to NYRA’s senior management team.

In running day-to-day operations, Kay will be partially responsible for smooth communication between NYRA and state regulators, which have been at odds in the past. Recently, the two sides butted heads again over NYRA’s procurement policy for selecting a firm to improve its online wagering platform. Because the state now has a stake in NYRA’s outcome, with a majority of the board appointed by the state, Kay said he felt their interests were aligned and he was optimistic about a good working relationship.

He added he recently had a talk with the governor’s director of operations, Howard Glaser, about how they can work together.

Kay will appear this morning at the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the National Museum of Racing.

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