When they start laughing, it is never a good sign. And they are starting to laugh at the New York Racing Association. In a self-inflicted wound, NYRA announced that they count in their Saratoga attendance figures people who do not actually attend that day’s races. Then they prevented reporters from entering a public meeting. To top it off, the NYRA Board at that same public meeting announced CEO Chris Kay was awarded a raise and a $250,000 bonus for, among other things, his accomplishments to “foster transparency.”
In last Sunday’s Saratogian, Paul Post reported that NYRA considers the 6,370 who purchased a season pass as having attended the races each day of the 40-day meet. Communications Director John Durso said that this was consistent with NYRA’s past practice and with that of Major League Baseball and the National Football League. As I explained in this post, neither statement could possibly be true. It would mean that the announced attendance of 8,044 on July 23 meant that only 1,674 actually paid to enter the track. While Presque Isle Downs might be happy with that number (where last Wednesday’s on-track handle was $33.000), it is a number that represents a crisis for NYRA.
The day after the article appeared I surveyed a small sample and asked what they thought the actual attendance was, and then what NYRA would report it as. The standard guess was that attendance was about 10,000. The highest estimate was one who said NYRA would report 18,000. The NYRA figure exceeded even that with 19,000 being given as last Monday’s attendance.
Needless to say, none of those surveyed had any factual basis for their estimates of actual attendance apart from being long-time fans. The important thing is that NYRA had no credibility and was the object of ridicule. Now the local media, including the Times Union and the Albany NPR affiliate WAMC, are joining the fray and they too are laughing.
The risk for any business or politician is that once the media narrative changes, it becomes difficult to undo, regardless of the actual facts. The prior NYRA leadership was constantly depicted as “scandal-ridden” even though there was never a scandal. That perception was largely fueled by Governor Andrew Cuomo and his henchmen, who steamrolled the compliant media and Legislature to support his taking control of New York racing.
The current NYRA leadership has mostly been given a free pass because the narrative had been that they were reforming racing. Never mind that actual reforms were never cited. But some of the current criticism is not warranted.
The NYRA Board meetings are, indeed, open to the media and the public. I have attended every full-length meeting until this one. The meeting notice states that both the media and the public must call ahead to reserve a spot. Part of this is for security – the meetings in New York City are in the building with other government offices including the Governor’s. The other reason is that space is limited. I have never had an issue with calling ahead. The meetings are also web cast, although this most recent one was in large part inaudible.
A more significant criticism would be what actually transpires inside the meeting, but that would require media outlets to actually observe the proceedings. (The racing media – DRF, Blood Horse and TDN actually have reporters attend the meetings.) One advantage for the non-racing media to have a consistent narrative is that it saves them work. So the Times Union can run a second piece today on media being prevented from entering the meeting for 40 minutes without actually having to analyze what happened once inside.
Were they to do that, they would start to realize that these Board meetings are nothing more than fatuous farces. This one was typical of other recent ones.
It began with the reading of a prepared statement from Board Chairman David Skorton, who holds the sessions in such high regard he scheduled it during his vacation. Then we had CEO Chris Kay read from a report that he distributed in advance of the meeting, followed by CFO Susanne Stover reading from her report also distributed in advance.
The report of the Compensation Committee recommending the bonus and salary increase for Kay lasted all of 100 seconds. Kay’s final compensation for his first year on the job is in line with salaries paid other racing executives. But Skorton and the Board made a big deal about how it would be based on performance with measurable goals – and they were able to “address” that in less than two minutes.
The report of the Equine Safety Committee was even shorter, lasting 85 seconds. Board members practically fell all over themselves in self-congratulatory statements about the reduction in equine racing fatalities from NYRA’s high level from two years ago. No one, however, raised two numbers that should have warranted at least some discussion. Racing fatalities for the preceding four months are three times the number from the same period last year. And, just as ominously, the fatalities occurring during training hours have not been reduced.
There was no discussion or questions from any Board member on two of the most significant controversies involving NYRA – the wide-spread dissatisfaction with NYRA’s handling of the Belmont Stakes or the falsification of the Saratoga attendance figures. It seems that the sole purpose of these Board meetings is to give its members and CEO a chance to congratulate themselves for the great job they are doing.
But the honeymoon may be coming to an end. When there is blood in the water, the sharks begin to circle – just ask the man to whom NYRA reports, Governor Andrew Cuomo.
I walked around the clubhouse and grandstand yesterday, and observed entire sections where at least half of the seats were empty. The benches on the apron in front of the clubhouse had plenty of vacancies. There were empty picnic tables by the paddock. NYRA announced attendance of 40,452. To put that number in perspective, look at the attendance for Whitney day. NYRA has been promoting their new concept of “Big Days,” and set an attendance goal of 50,000 for the Whitney. The reported figure was 36,318.
The attendance story is not going away, because the falsified figures represent a government agency that has lost its credibility, and NYRA has been incapable of articulating an explanation that is either logical or consistent. I also ssupect that in addition to counting all season passes in a day’s figure, they are also counting the number of reserve tickets they sell, even if no one shows up. While the latter may be an understandable practice, NYRA would be counting those reserved tickets holders a second time when they come through the turnstiles. I have asked NYRA if that is their practice, but have not received a response.
If there is one thing I have learned from working in government and observing it closely, there is one virtual certainty – the truth will come out.