This past Wednesday was not the best of days for the New York Racing Association.
Gabby Gaudet, a NYRA television commentator for a couple of years, decided to take her talents to TVG. She is an engaging and personable expert – adjectives rarely used to describe her remaining counterpart, Andy Serling. For a sport in desperate need of expanding its fan base to bring in a younger demographic (and more women), Gaudet is a real asset. Her departure will not help NYRA’s efforts to popularize its own broadcast efforts.
Then there was the sudden “resignation” of Chris Kay, President and CEO of the organization. When NYRA”s Board of Directors accepted the resignation “effective immediately,” we can assume that it was either resign or be fired. NYRA’s press release did not offer a reason for the unexpected action.
David Grening of the Daily Racing Form reported, however, that according to “multiple sources … the board asked for Kay’s resignation after it learned that Kay had used NYRA employees to do private work for him at the house he owns in Saratoga.”
By the standards of the Cuomo Administration, of course, this is a small-bore scandal, although certainly one worthy of being terminated from employment. And let’s not kid ourselves about NYRA now being in private control. The Board’s membership did not change when it was supposedly “reprivatized” from government control. The majority of the Board consisted of either Cuomo appointees, including Kay himself, or Cuomo loyalists.
It is no longer surprising when entitled people engage in remarkably stupid behavior and exhibit serious errors in judgment. Kay, according to the most recent public information, was pulling in more than $500,000 annually and could be expected to pay someone to mow his lawn.
What is surprising, however, is that earlier this month The BloodHorse reported that Kay and his wife made a “personal donation of $100,000” towards the New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America’s efforts to build a multi-purpose building at Belmont Park to serve track workers. That’s a serious chunk of change, and seemingly not the conduct of someone engaging in nickel-and-dime corruption.
Kay has been a controversial figure. (I suspect, however, that that would be true of any person serving in the job given the opinionated, sometimes dyspeptic, nature of racing fans.) He acknowledged knowing nothing about the sport when he arrived in 2013 – he once characterized the condition book that lists upcoming races as if he discovered the Holy Grail even though all tracks have a version. But he developed a fluency and knowledge as he went on.
Under his leadership, improvements have been made, although some may have been initiated before he arrived. There are the changes to the living conditions of backstretch workers – Board member Michael Dubb was a major champion. He developed a new arrangement at Saratoga at the top of the stretch that changed frequently empty seating sections to something that could attract new fans and revenue. Saratoga is also building a new structure at the other end of the grandstand that will cater to those who had been going to the temporary modular units.
Some of his “improvements” have come at the expense of the “regular Joe and Jane” race trackers who, for example, may like to go to the paddock without being crowded out by picnic tables for sale or tents serving as pop-up bars. Then there is the monument to his ego – a new building outside the grandstand that serves as a museum to those awarded a “Red Jacket,” a lame idea that he thinks will become his contribution to Saratoga tradition.
On balance, was he a positive force? His selling point was that he excelled at customer service – or, as he called us, guests. But he touted the Belmont Park festival, portrayed as a three-day extravaganza of great horse racing. The best races were all moved to Saturday, with lesser stakes running the preceding days. My memory of going on the Friday two years ago is of a “crowd” that could easily fit in my high school’s gym, and not being able to get a hot dog – the day before the Belmont Stakes.
Is Saratoga a better experience? I like to treat company to what I call the “full Saratoga.” It’s the training tracks in the morning with breakfast there. Races in the afternoon and, of course, downtown in the evening. While the grandstand improvements are a welcome change, one cannot escape the notion that it is primarily those with large amounts of disposable income that are the real “guests.”
Whatever his shortcomings may be, however, Kay is not what ails New York racing or prevents it from improving. NYRA does have two governmental oversight bodies – the Gaming Commission and the Franchise Oversight Board. Both are dominated by appointees of Andrew Cuomo – just as NYRA is.
When Governor Cuomo seized control of NYRA early in his administration, he did it by trumping up charges against NYRA’s leadership and ordering reviews of alleged malfeasance at the organization. While the results of those reviews were clearly politically motivated and phony, Cuomo got what he wanted – control of NYRA and removal of those who preferred to act independently and not kowtow to his whims.
Now we can see how determined the Governor is to ensure integrity at one of the nation’s premier racing jurisdictions. If David Grening’s sources are correct, there is clearly a significant problem within NYRA. Back in the day when NYRA conducted public meetings, there were reports from Board members with internal audit and financial control responsibilities. Those reports were public. As part of his effort to seize control in 2012, Cuomo has the Gaming Commission’s predecessor, the Racing and Wagering Board, issue a public report. The Governor’s Inspector General also issued a public report.
That, however, was back before the Governor was responsible for NYRA. While he may still try to disclaim responsibility under the “reprivatization” charade, he is responsible for the Gaming Commission and Franchise Oversight Board.
The Gaming Commission has a public meeting Monday at 1:00 at which the NYRA situation may be discussed. They will also be discussing a weakening of an equine safety rule that I discussed here and here. It will be broadcast on their web site, but don’t hold your breath waiting for any serious discussion.