Surrounded by media livened by word of his six-figure performance bonus, New York Racing Association President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Kay didn’t find himself answering many questions about whether one of two downstate tracks could end up closing in the near future.
Kay, who was awarded a $250,000 performance bonus and a 3 percent raise last month, indicated he is working on a long-term plan that will ensure NYRA remains on steady financial ground after it emerges from a state-ordered public reorganization sometime next year. That plan will develop sometime over the next four months, he told a gathering of reporters at NYRA’s board of directors meeting Wednesday morning.
“In four months, we’ll let you know,” he said when asked about long-range plans for the association’s Belmont and Aqueduct facilities. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and there are a lot of different points of view. We’re going to do this as thoroughly as possible so we can do this the right way.”
Kay’s report to the board at Saratoga National Golf Club indicated he plans to look at “the projected risks and benefits of maintaining the status quo,” but he acknowledged this doesn’t seem likely with declining attendance at Aqueduct and Belmont. And ultimately, with both tracks in need of upgrades, one could be closed down.
“When you talk about what is going to be the plan, it starts with having a good financial plan and a good business plan,” he said. “And that’s what we’re working on more than anything else, not only for this year, but in the future.”
Board member Michael Dubb, co-chairman of NYRA’s Long-Term Planning Committee, spoke more candidly about the future of downstate thoroughbred racing, indicating the association is already exploring plans to make Belmont suitable for year-round racing and other potential uses, bringing the facility built in 1968 up to the same standard as other sporting venues in the area.
“There’s no economics in operating two racetracks eight miles apart,” he said after the meeting.
Built in 1955, Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens is the older of the two tracks and, by many accounts, in worse shape. Aqueduct now hosts the Resorts World Casino, a video lottery terminal facility operated by Genting Group. Owned by New York state and leased to NYRA for 22-plus years, the property could have development potential for Genting, something that could help fund an overhaul at Belmont, Dubb said.
“We need one to pay for the other,” he said.
The discussion at NYRA’s board meeting, however, focused more on strides the association has made in the past year than on any concrete plans for the future. Those successes include the first budget surplus since 2000, an increase in wagering on NYRA races, better attendance and a marked decline in equine fatalities — down more than half this year from the 2.1 injuries per 1,000 starters registered in 2012.
The all-sources handle on NYRA races was $592 million, up 4 percent from 2013. On-track handle was $84.6 million, up 8 percent from the previous year.
Kay’s report also focused on successes at the Saratoga Race Course during the first week of the meet. Handle was up roughly $2 million, on-track attendance increased by 10 percent over the previous year and per-capita spending increased by 19 percent, he reported.
“We’re taking steps in the right direction. We’re trying to put our financial house in order. This is the first time in several years we’ve had an operating budget we think will generate more revenue than expenses,” he said. “And that’s important — we’re on track right now to do that.”
Kay’s successes were apparently in line with benchmarks outlined in his contract and reviewed by board Chairman David Skorton, who recommended the performance bonus and raise last month. A review by the board’s Compensation Committee agreed with the assessment by Skorton, who wasn’t at Wednesday’s meeting.
Though NYRA released Kay’s contract last year, the association hasn’t publicized the performance goals used to determine the bonus. Still, board members believed the bonus and raise for Kay, who makes a base salary of $300,000, are well deserved for his performance over the past year.
“He restored NYRA to profitability, he built a strong management team, he increased equine safety, he fostered transparency and he made significant improvements to the customer experience,” committee chairman Vincent Tese said.