The New York Racing Association is creating the second-richest day of racing in the United States by offering $8 million in purse money for Belmont Stakes day. In its Friday announcement, NYRA leaders said purses for five traditional stakes races on Belmont day would be increased by $1.4 million, with five stakes normally run on other days being moved to June 7 with their total purses increased by $2 million. The Friday announcement comes two months after NYRA said its financial situation required them to increase admission and parking charges for both the Belmont and Saratoga meets.
I do not think that anyone could seriously question whether this is now the most compelling race card in the country that is not the Breeders’ Cup. Whether it is a good idea is entirely a different matter.
Among the races being moved are three from the traditional Memorial Day card, including the Met Mile, Ogden Phipps and Acorn, each of which is a Grade I. Purses for the Belmont Stakes, Manhattan and Met Mile are being increased by $500,000 each; the Phipps gets a $600,000 bump and the Acorn $450,000. Two races that had been run on the Friday before Belmont Stakes day are being switched to Saturday.
The premise of the NYRA “experiment” – as CEO Chris Kay described it – is that $8 million in purses will draw casual fans to the track. Owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys will understandably love it since it increases their potential pay day. But when is the last time any fan – hardcore or casual – went to a day of racing because of the purse level? Does it really add to the appeal if the owner of the Belmont Stakes winner will get $900,000 instead of the mere $600,000 from a year ago? It is marketing money over the more compelling stories of the horses and their human connections. And while a true fan loves nothing more than high quality racing, the Belmont under card has been so important to NBC television that it often does not even show the Manhattan as a live race – let alone discuss it beforehand.
Then there is the devaluing of a significant feature of the Belmont spring meet – the Metropolitan Mile and the two other Grade I’s run that day. It is one of the most important events on America’s racing calendar and a fitting way to start the summer. NYRA promised to add a compelling replacement program but has yet to reveal it.
The NYRA move further exacerbates what I think is one of the major flaws by the racing industry in attracting new fans – over-reliance on the Triple Crown races. I’m not the only person who once thought that American racing consisted of three races. If there is one thing the Triple Crown does not need is more attention, but that is what NYRA has done. Instead of a marketing effort aimed at the Met Mile, Acorn and Phipps, those races will now become subordinate to the Belmont Stakes – a race that without a Triple Crown on the line is too often contested by mediocre three-year olds.
NYRA has not announced the admission prices for Belmont Stakes day, but CEO Kay chillingly referenced the Kentucky Derby as a valid comparison. While Churchill Downs does run America’s most famous race, their mercenary efforts at cashing in on Derby Day is something to be avoided, not emulated. I stopped attending the Oaks and the Derby when Churchill announced that our four “seats” on a metal bench in an uncovered area would now require a seat licensing fee of $3,000, entitling me to purchase tickets for the next five years. (At that time, each number on the Derby bench cost $200.)
In addition to the effect NYRA’s announcement will have on the desirability of the remainder of the Belmont spring meet, its decision is particularly puzzling for one trying to fathom what the NYRA leadership is thinking. Two headlines came out of the last meeting of the NYRA Reorganization Board on December 4. One was a proposal to increase the general admission price at Belmont and Saratoga from $3 to $5 and clubhouse admission from $5 to $8. Parking fees were also to be increased. The other was the crucial importance for NYRA to stop counting on the revenues generated by the Video Lottery terminals at Aqueduct.
With the VLT payments – made from the profits of the private company running the Aqueduct racino – NYRA operates in the black. Without them, it was looking at an operating deficit of $1.5 million for 2014. In a mix of cost cutting and revenue enhancements, Board Chairman David Skorton proposed increasing the admission prices and parking fees to increase revenue by about $2 million. If you happened to miss the original announcement and reaction, it was a proposal that was opposed by some Board members and met with a fair amount of vehemence from the public. Coincidentally, the purse increases announced by NYRA for Belmont Stakes day will put an additional $2 million in the pockets of the owners of that day’s winning horses.
So the Belmont Stakes announcement – perhaps unwittingly – conjoined the controversial issues. The money to fund purses comes from a different account than that used to operate NYRA’s three tracks. Nonetheless, it doesn’t require a great deal of foresight to understand that following an announcement of significant increases for the fan who supports the daily racing product with one boosting the payments to successful owners is unlikely to sit well. NYRA’s efforts to draw a distinction between the different accounts will only make them look more foolish to an already skeptical public.
Apart from another potential public relations disaster, however, NYRA’s Friday announcement runs completely contrary to a message being pumped out by the Cuomo Administration’s top racing officials ever since the Governor seized control of NYRA almost two years ago. His Budget Director, Robert Megna, who also sits on the NYRA Board, has been consistently strident in pushing the remainder of the Board to stop relying on the VLT payments. Robert Williams, Acting Director of the Gaming Commission, similarly does not miss an opportunity to make this point. Whenever an Administration figure refers to the VLT payments, they are characterized as a “state subsidy,” even though the state’s involvement is limited to being a conduit between a profitable gambling company and the racing industry.
A cynic may wonder if the sudden and dramatic policy reversal is somehow tied to the Governor’s reelection bid. He has demonstrated regularly that no amount of pandering is too insignificant to bypass. And there should be no doubt that any member of the Cuomo Administration is going to make an announcement of this magnitude – or, for that matter, any announcement – without first getting the Governor’s approval.
Nonetheless, what this says about the “new” NYRA is disturbing. Little has been accomplished since the Governor’s takeover with the notable exception of a marked reduction in racing fatalities. In a little over a year from now, the new Board must recommend a replacement for a NYRA now run by the state government, but there has been no public discussion of what that would look like, with one notable exception. That would be the importance of not relying on the VLT revenues. Now that that important “principle” has been blown away by using those same VLT revenues to increase the purses for Belmont Stakes day, one can only wonder when the NYRA leadership will stop its flailing about for relevance and actually accomplish something.