At some point over the course of the last week, I had to remind myself that I am not employed by the New York Racing Association Complaint Dept.
It just seemed that way.
I wrote a column for last Saturday’s paper outlining some of the changes that have been implemented by NYRA president and CEO Chris Kay for the upcoming Saratoga Race Course meet, and to say that it struck a nerve would be a gross understatement.
For that simple fact alone, writing another one today as a follow-up seems reasonable and not a gratuitous exercise in piling on. If you have a problem with that, well, the line forms to the left.
Believe me, I’m really not in favor of bashing for bashing’s sake. And, anyway, Kay is merely doing what he was hired to do. If you live in New York State, you can probably recognize a familiar pattern since Gov. Andrew Cuomo muscled in on racing.
The fact that the subject of policy changes such as the reserved picnic tables — at a cost — had not been brought up at any previous NYRA board meeting tells you everything you need to know. Kay left it upon himself to drop this nugget and others, like cancellation of the traditional open house, at the preview press conference less than five weeks before the meet starts. But, hey, look at this free umbrella.
So this is what everybody’s stuck with for who knows how long.
That doesn’t mean it’s pointless for me to review some of the reactions I got last week, and here’s why: People aren’t just profoundly miffed at NYRA, they’ve already begun to alter their behavior in ways that NYRA will notice eventually. There’s no way to predict when. But it’s happening.
For instance, one reader said he just opened a NYRA Rewards advance deposit wagering account. That’s good for NYRA. But he did it in contemplation of staying home instead of going to the track. Bad for NYRA.
Another said that Capital OTB’s Tele-Theater is suddenly looking a lot more appealing.
One man who left a voicemail at my apartment started off by saying he agreed with the column, “but you missed one” (it was more than one, but we’ll get to that).
He was referring to the new cost bundle on reserved seats.
In the past, you’d order a seat, and then when you showed up at the track, you’d pay admission at the gate to get in and proceed on your merry way to the grandstand or clubhouse.
As of this year, that admission cost is attached to the seat cost when you reserve it, which on the surface seems like it could actually be in some way a minor, if unnecessary, convenience. And it makes sense to do it that way from NYRA’s standpoint.
In reality, it’s another form of gouging, because, in reality, not everyone who buys a seat actually makes it to the track that day.
OK, let’s say you reserve a seat and don’t use it, for whatever reason. That’s on you. Should you also still be on the hook for spinning a turnstile that you never spun? Maybe. You knew the rules up front (or you do now).
But let’s say you’ve been buying four all-season seats in the clubhouse for 35 years, as one gentleman who emailed me has been. It’s likely that not every one of your seats will be used for each of the 40 days. You expect to absorb some losses.
Not this much, though. As he pointed out, between being forced to pre-pay admission for reserved seats, and the season admission pass that allows people without seats to get in for the duration of the meet for a measly $55 (clubhouse), NYRA is turning a cold shoulder on its most loyal customers. This is somebody who paid over $3,000 for four seats this season, up almost $500 from last year (the cost of his seats went up 18 percent, too).
Loyalty only goes so far. This man, who has been coming to Saratoga since 1954, said that his wife gave up the four seats that she’s had for the same 35 years. He knows others who have done the same.
Another group of people substantially invested in Saratoga specifically and racing in general — owners — are affected by this new policy, too. One of the perks of an ownership license in New York, whether you're wealthy or own a 1 percent share in a cheap horse, is free admission to the tracks. Now they will have to pay to get in if they buy a seat.
Hard-core bettors won’t give a rip, but there are some other little tweaks that serve NYRA in petty ways to the detriment of fan engagement. For instance, don’t expect to see those friendly “How May I Help You?” hospitality booths anymore.
You can justify these changes if, as some friends of mine who know a lot more about this sort of thing than I do have pointed out, your mission is to bootstrap Saratoga to a level of revenue generation, monetization and profit margin that has gone underestimated and untapped for years.
But how much are you willing to lose in the process?
Not to add to the growing sense of dread, but there is an even more discouraging question out there:
What will they come up with next?