The New York Racing Association held its annual pre-Saratoga press conference on Monday to highlight what it perceives to be the significant improvements it is bringing to this year’s meet. The competition for what is the biggest outrage announced by CEO Chris Kay is expected to be intense.
- Removing six large trees near the Carousel in order to build a museum. The “museum” will house memorabilia of those honored as “Red Jacket” recipients, a Kay innovation supposedly to honor those who made a significant contribution to Saratoga, according to Mike Kane in TDN.com. While one cannot criticize those selected – this year it is Mary Lou Whitney and Dinny Phipps – one suspects it is really a tribute to Chris Kay.
- Eliminating the decades-long tradition of an open house, as well as the Wait Trials, on the Sunday before the meet opens. It is an event that brought thousands to the track, many of whom were families with kids, and supported local non-profit organizations. The kids got to wander around the track, go for pony rides, pet animals in a petting zoo, and eat all the junk kids love to eat at sporting venues. According to Kay, he has a better idea – as he always does – of family fun days on Mondays. Last year, this was a small area where dozens – not thousands – of kids could play in a bounce house and perhaps pet a pony. NYRA’s other CEO – Chief Experience Officer Lynn LaRocca – said the event was a lot of work with little return for the non-profits, according to Teresa Genaro writing in BloodHorse.com. In what appears to be a remarkable coincidence, it is also an event in which NYRA had not yet figured out a way to get its own taste.
- Adding another 100 picnic tables in the backyard, in addition to the 100 added last year. Oh, and NYRA will be charging for those 100 – $40 on weekdays, $60 on weekends and $125 on Travers Day. If you thought getting to the paddock was difficult last year, wait until you try to navigate among those who paid to be there. The kids who loved getting an up-close look at horses? They can come back on Monday’s family fun day.
- Charging for tables in the lower level of the Carousel. Kay is bringing “premium hospitality” to the area, removing the plastic rows of chairs to replace them with tables – for which, of course, you will have to pay: $35 for a weekday table for four to $125 for a table of six on Travers Day.
I suppose none of this should come as a surprise – with the exception of removing six trees from an historic site that are as much a part of the Saratoga experience as enjoying a coffee at the rail in the morning. CEO Kay revealed a great deal about his thinking in a piece in the Sunday Saratogian entitled “Numbers reflect a vibrant horse racing industry.” According to Kay, Saratoga, “by all arguable metrics, is far more robust and sound today than at any time in recent memory. This proposition is not based on opinion, but is rooted in fact.” His facts are from “a recent independent economic impact study commissioned by the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency.”
What numbers did he cite – attendance, handle, purse money? Of course not, since those are “metrics” associated with horse racing. His measure of vitality – and I am not making this up – are hotel room taxes. In 2014, Saratoga Springs and County of Saratoga room occupancy taxes amounted to $536,475. To put that number in perspective, it is less than the handle on a single race run at Belmont on Sunday.
In his Saratogian article, Kay points to the “remarkable progress in the past couple of years to strengthen our sport.” That would be while Kay has been in charge. But knowing his devotion to a proposition that is “not based on opinion, but is rooted in fact,” let’s return to what the Chairman of the IDA stated in his introduction to the report:
“Simply put, the VLT enhanced purse structure and breeders awards program has revitalized the industry and made the New York Breeding program the envy of the country.”
These would be the same VLT payments (Aqueduct’s Video Lottery Terminals) that NYRA tries to minimize in the interest of developing whatever accounting legerdemain they need to make the fatuous argument they operate at a profit.
The IDA Chairman further observed that NYRA “is mandated to submit a reorganization plan in 2015 which will hopefully return the operation of New York’s three primary racing facilities to the private sector.” That plan was regularly cited by Chris Kay as one of his three primary goals last year. It is also the only requirement of the 2012 legislation that established the NYRA reorganization Board. Neither Kay nor the Board made any progress on this, and the law had to be extended for another year.
As a taxpayer, I am certainly grateful for the tax revenue provided by people staying in Saratoga hotels during racing season. As a racing fan, breeder and owner, I am becoming increasingly concerned that this charlatan running New York’s premier racing is digging a big hole for the sport.
It’s not just cutting down the trees or eliminating events that Saratoga residents enjoy. It’s not just the failure to realize that getting families and kids to the track is a way of growing the sport. It is that Kay clearly has no clue on what he is doing. Yes, NYRA may bring in more money as a result of this year’s “improvements.” But if the cost is racing’s seed corn, what have we gained other than a talking point for Chris Kay?