It’s now been a week since the running of the Belmont Stakes. The handle broke records, attendance was the third-highest in history, and the racing was superb. But the experience of many fans attending the event appears to have been sub-par, if not dismal. Yet the only response I have seen from the New York Racing Association is to blame the Long Island Rail Road for not scheduling enough trains to accommodate departing fans.
I did not attend the event, but based on accounts from reliable sources, NYRA’s preparation was woefully inadequate to handle the 100,000 who showed up, even though that same NYRA had been working all year on attracting such a crowd. Among the reported complaints:
- People paying in advance for parking showed up only to be told the lot was full and they were on their own;
- Those paying for reserved seats found the seats occupied, with the ushers not removing the poachers;
- Lines for food and beverages were quite long – before they ran out of food, water and beer;
- Food quality was less than last year’s because some vendors did not appear this year because of their unwillingness to pay NYRA’s increased fees;
- Long betting lines;
- Long waiting lines for restrooms, particularly those for women, some of whom ended up in a men’s room;
- Insufficient wi-fi and cell service;
- Chaos in the parking lots as patrons sought to leave;
- Unlit parking lots that had some fearing for their safety;
- Ridiculously long waits for trains for those who did not drive;
- Piles of rubbish and garbage for those who showed up for the Sunday card.
Now, no sensible person shows up at event of any kind where 100,000 are expected without anticipating some inconvenience, even in a facility as large as Belmont Park. But,I’ve been to numerous such racing events, including the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup, without experiencing or witnessing a comparable list of problems.
None of these problems, however, require a rocket science to both anticipate and address. It would be one thing if the crowd was unexpected, but NYRA has worked all year at enticing a large crowd even if a Triple Crown was not on the line – the reason for carding ten stakes races. NYRA’s CEO Chris Kay was hired despite a lack of any experience in racing, but supposedly brought management expertise. Since he has started, his mantra has been enhancing the experience of NYRA’s “guests” – as he likes to call them. None of the reported deficiencies require knowledge of racing, but rather some awareness of customer service and common sense.
But what is more troubling than negative experiences by fans who responded to NYRA’s invitation is that NYRA has yet to address them – other than blaming someone else. I do not know if any of the complaints are true. I fear that NYRA’s lack of a comprehensive response means that Chris Kay either does not know or does not care.
I arrived late for the March meeting of the Board of Directors to hear Chris Kay announce, “Birds have no place in our building.” I thought it was quite amusing, not knowing that the context was an article in the Daily News reporting the presence of birds inside Aqueduct. Kay apologized for any inconvenience experienced by “guests.” NYRA also issued a statement to the Daily News following the Belmont in which they promised to work “quickly with LIRR officials” to prevent future problems. There was no mention, as reported by the Daily News, of any other issues.
Perhaps NYRA only addresses problems when they are raised by the mainstream media. But there are responsible, fair-minded and respected journalists covering racing who reported many of the above issues. Teresa Genaro wrote in Forbes.com, Alan Mann in Left at the Gate and Joe Clancy in This is Horse Racing. (Clancy and his family missed their train at Penn Station that departed four hours after the Belmont, and had an unanticipated “guest experience” in a NYC hotel.) While it may be easier for NYRA to respond to questions only raised by a too-often superficial news outlet, if “enhancing the guest experience” is truly important to them, they would address any credible critique.
But even if NYRA does not want to credit credible journalists, what is their analysis of this year’s Belmont experience? Were they cloistered with the high rollers in the club house, or did they walk through the grandstand to determine for themselves what was going on? If they could dispute any of the complaints, one would think they would have already done so. If they were investigating the complaints, one would think they would say so.
The Daily News reported that neither Chris Kay nor the newly-hired “Chief Experience Officer” showed up in their offices at Belmont on Sunday. They may have been resting on what they believe to be their laurels, but it sure sounds like a lot of people think their performance was abysmal. Or maybe an enhanced guest experience means never saying you are sorry.