The New York Racing Association held its second public forum Aug. 26, providing an opportunity for its customers to speak directly to the association's management. The first public forum was held at Belmont Park in June.
The June meeting was commandeered by a local union, which sent representatives not employed by NYRA to challenge acrimoniously the status of the association's contract with cleaners, program sellers, and security offers. Likely as a result of that meeting, participants in the Aug. 26 forum were required to register and submit questions ahead of time.
The Monday evening forum took place at the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame and was moderated by Eric Wing, NYRA director of communications and media relations. Taking questions from the public were Chris Kay, NYRA president and chief executive officer; David O'Rourke, vice president of corporate development; P.J. Campo, vice president and director of racing; Glen Kozak, vice president of facilities and racing surfaces; and Patrick Mahoney, senior vice president of pari-mutuel operations.
Based on the questions submitted, local residents are concerned primarily with the amount of racing at Saratoga Race Course; about the quality of the technology available at the track; and about the future of the facilities at not just Saratoga, but also at Belmont,and Aqueduct Racetrack.
Multiple participants submitted questions about the value of a six-day racing week and of race cards that seldom include fewer than 10 races, regularly stretching to 11 or 12. While Kay promised that all elements of Saratoga's program would be evaluated after the meet, including the amount of racing, he and other participants suggested the perception that there's too much racing might not be accurate, based on simulcast wagering.
"We believe the key to Saratoga's success is for it be special," said Kay, who noted he sees demand for the product, not "bettor fatigue" on long race days.
Mahoney said Saratoga is responsible for 35% of national pari-mutuel handle, and that races held late in the afternoon are an attractive betting proposition in Las Vegas and California.
"Look at what's being bet around the country," Mahoney said. "People look up and see their choice of signals, they see Saratoga at 3:45 in Los Angeles. The Saratoga name means something, and people will bet into that race."
Kay also said less racing in Saratoga means less economic development for the region. Still, he said NYRA is compiling data in order to determine how many races make sense for local residents, measuring, for instance, the activity in the track's parking lots every quarter hour to determine when customers are arriving and departing.
It was one of many instances in which Kay said the organization will rely on data collected now and in the future in order to make decisions. He also said NYRA has been measuring every quarter hour the number of people visiting the recently opened Whitney viewing stand on the Oklahoma training track to determine if and when it will be open to the public after the racing season ends.
High among customer concerns is the quality of the audio and visual experience at the racetrack, with questions focusing on the televisions, the public address system, and the availability of wireless access. Kozak said the televisions throughout the plant are gradually being replaced with flat-screen, high-definition monitors, and that the organization is working to upgrade the quality of the public address system. O'Rourke noted that wireless capability will likely be increased next year, as it was this year.
Asked about the possibility of the Breeders' Cup World Championships returning to New York, Kay acknowledged the need for Belmont to upgrade its facilities for its current customers, a process he said will take place over the next two years. Kay said any upgrades will be done in conjunction with the NYRA board's long-range planning committee and a consulting firm that will "provide data" on what is working at other racetracks around the country and the world, and what is being offered to consumers in the New York metropolitan area at other entertainment and sports venues.
Once that is done, Kay said, the issue of the Breeders' Cup can be addressed, specifically its timing. Typically held on the first weekend of November, the World Championships in New York would conflict with the New York Marathon, creating challenges for hotel accommodations for Breeders' Cup visitors. A Belmont Breeders' Cup would likely need to be held at the end of October.
Other questions raised by customers regarded the availability of a Pick 5 wager, expected to be initiated at Belmont this fall, and the future of Aqueduct. Kay made clear that high-level customer service and a positive on-track experience are priorities at all three NYRA tracks.
Both he and Campo lauded the success of the current Saratoga meet, pointing to the record-breaking handle on Travers Day; the presence of such horses as Royal Delta and Wise Dan; ceremonies celebrating the careers of the recently retired Ramon Domingez and of John Velazquez, who this summer broke Jerry Bailey's record for most wins by a jockey at Saratoga; and the ongoing commemoration of 150 years of Thoroughbred racing in Saratoga Springs, which, Kay said, have contributed to this being one of Saratoga's "most memorable meets ever."