Kay took the helm of NYRA in July, just in time to spend the summer at Saratoga, the nation’s most successful track, packed with large, enthusiastic crowds six days a week. But when NYRA moved its operations downstate after Labor Day, Kay saw what the sport looks like most of the year.
Kay was hired after NYRA had been rocked by controversies and scandals and its CEO deposed. Governor Andrew Cuomo, no lover of horse racing, orchestrated a coup that gave New York State control over NYRA. Dealing with the state’s politics and bureaucracy would be a full-time job in itself, but Kay’s background won’t let him ignore the challenge of attracting and caring for customers.
He has been the chief operating officer of Toys ’R’ Us and an executive of Universal Parks and Resorts, two businesses in which taking care of customers is paramount. When Kay talks about racing, he uses language he probably employed in discussing visitors to Universal’s theme parks.
“What I want to do is provide an enhanced guest experience,” Kay said. “We’re stressing the importance of engagements with our guests.”
He believes that NYRA can do an even better job at Saratoga, and he believes he can revitalize Belmont — by treating customers better, staging special events, offering better food and arranging the seating to eliminate the mausoleum feeling.
Kay will not succeed in transforming Belmont, but can be forgiven for being unrealistic, because he is a newcomer to the sport and even most industry veterans don’t understand the dynamics of on-track business vs. off-track business.
The sport underwent a profound change in the 1990s, when horseplayers got the chance to watch races on a computer or home TV and to bet by computer or phone. The vast majority of them saw that playing the races from home is a better experience than going to the track. They don’t have to take a slow-moving train to Belmont Park or crawl along the Capital Beltway to Laurel Park. They don’t have to pay for admissions, parking or overpriced food. With a computer on their desk, they have all necessary handicapping information at their fingertips. Nothing a racetrack can offer will trump these conveniences.
The few tracks that still offer a vital live product are all beneficiaries of special situations. Saratoga, Del Mar and Oaklawn Park are resort/spa destinations with long histories and a special ambience that lures a broad spectrum of fans. Keeneland and Churchill Downs are in a state where horse racing is ingrained in the culture.