Long-term control of the Saratoga Race Course ultimately rests in the hands of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, according to new New York Racing Association CEO and President Chris Kay.
Whether NYRA or some version of NYRA continues to run racing at the Aqueduct Race Track, Belmont Park and Saratoga after October 2015, when the publicly controlled NYRA board is set to dissolve, is up to the governor.
In the meantime, Kay said he will be working to create the best NYRA operation possible and demonstrate why it should continue to run Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga.
“At the end of the day, the governor will have all the options,” he said.
The state takeover of NYRA was initiated last spring when an error in withholding on winning bets cost bettors millions of dollars and led to the firing of then-CEO Charlie Hayward. A publicly controlled NYRA board was put in place a few months later and it has been steering operations until Kay took over on July 1.
From his small summer office at the Saratoga Race Course, Kay reiterated on Thursday that his main focus is plotting a course for racing at NYRA’s three tracks to return to private control in two years. In planning for the future, he has said that all options are being considered, including expanding the summer meet at Saratoga.
How well he handles reprivatization will be one of the things considered next July when the NYRA board decides on his annual $250,000 bonus, which is on top of a $300,000 base salary.
Kay, whose background includes chief operating officer for Toys R Us and consultant to Universal Parks & Resorts, doesn’t have any racing experience, which has prompted him to initiate the hiring of an executive racing director. He also has plans to restructure the top level of NYRA’s executive staff.
And while his contract is set to expire in October, 2015, Kay hopes to stay on past that.
Below are excerpts from a conversation with him:
Q: After the first month on the job, have you come to a conclusion about any additional staff you want to hire, whether on the racing side or to help with reprivatization?
A: We are going to be issuing [a request for proposal] … for various executive search firms to help us select an executive director of racing. This is a position recommended in the [New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety] report and I think it makes a lot of sense. This process will start in the next couple of weeks …With respect to reprivatization, obviously that is something I know a little bit about and I’m going to try to figure out who within our existing staff can provide insight and assistance in specific areas.
Q: What do you see as your role in facilitating communications between state officials and the NYRA board?
A: I think my job is to be the person who interacts with the state officials and then report to our board on that relationship … I’ve made an effort to try to work with the state. I’ve had some great meetings with various people in the state and I will continue to do so. That way we won’t have the kind of situation we had with [a recent sole source bidding process that state officials are making NYRA redo].
Q: Who will decide who runs racing at Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct when the racing franchise returns to private control in 2015?
A: When we have achieved our responsibility [which is crafting a plan for return to private hands] the governor will then have an opportunity to weigh his options and decide what he wants to do. He may decide to sell [the franchise] to a private organization … He may decide we’ll have a [nonprofit] organization with a new board.
Q: Would you like to see a version of NYRA continue to run racing at Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct?
A: That’s not my call. I’m going to do everything I can to demonstrate why that might make sense, but I’m also going to make sure the governor has plenty of options.
Q: How long is your contract with NYRA?
A: I believe the statute says we need to exit this stage in our organization’s history by a specific date in October 2015 … so my contract expires on that date … If, whatever is the new NYRA, if those people who run that organization say, “Chris, we would like for you to stay on,” I’m saying right now, “I would like to do so.”
Q: Can you talk about when and how you will be assessed by the NYRA board to determine if you’ll receive your bonus?
A: It is an annual review, so we’re one month into my first year [with the first review in July 2014] … The criteria are something that should be disclosed by the group that has those criteria for me: the board.
Q: How do you view the decrease in attendance for the month of July compared to July 2012?
A: With respect to the success of this individual meet I think it is too early to come to any conclusions … I think it’s much more instructive to look at the end of the meet to determine how we did.
Q: Horse racing can go in a lot of different directions, whether it is trying to attract new fans or trying to please established fans. Are you going to have to pick one direction or split the difference?
A: I think we can do strategic things in several areas … I want to make sure that we’re doing something that is supportive of our horsemen and encourages more people to become horsemen. I have met with several [horsemen]. I want to do things to make this a better experience for our core fans. I’ve met with several of them. And with respect to our casual fans, there is a whole different type of approach … What I’m going to try to do is up our game in all those areas.
Q: State officials have been critical of NYRA’s reliance on support payments from video gaming revenue for its operating budget, capital expenditures and horsemen. Will you try to wean NYRA off that money?
A: The way we’re going to look at it is, “What does the most successful, sustainable horse racing operation look like?” And once we have defined that, we’ll say, how much do we need in capital for capital expenditures and to maintain our facilities. What are we projecting are going to be our revenues and what are we projecting are going to be our expenses … One of the things I would like to see us do, and we’re starting to work on that now, [is a better aligning of] our operating expenses and our operating revenues.
Q: With a live-table casino possibly being located in the region in the near future and a push in some quarters for more racing days in Saratoga, what potential changes do you see at the Saratoga Race Course?
A: There will be a lot of things on the table. This is a great facility and it is a historic facility, so we want to make sure we maintain it and take care of it … [At the Racing Hall of Fame before the start of this meet] someone asked, “Why don’t you have more racing days here? Why don't you start July 4?” I said, “We’ll look at that, but we have to be careful.” It isn’t one of those things where you can simply say, “well obviously if you had more days of racing that would be better.” … I don’t want to do anything that would ever diminish that which is special about Saratoga.”