Despite a press conference that was at times contentious, New York Racing Association president and CEO Chris Kay said that he hopes to be at the helm of NYRA for a long time.
Kay met with members of the Saratoga Race Course press corps July 17, taking questions for approximately 30 minutes on topics ranging from the heat expected on opening day to the salary incentives that are part of his compensation.
A former executive at Toys R Us, the Trust for Public Land, and Universal Studios theme parks, Kay faces the opening of NYRA's most important race meeting with less than two weeks of racing experience under his belt, having been on the job only since July 1.
Kay immediately dispelled the idea that racing might be canceled on opening day July 19 when temperatures are expected to be in the mid-90s with a chance of storms.
"We have no intention to cancel opening day," he said. "We're prepared for it. We'll be very concerned about the safety of patrons and horses and jockeys, and we are prepared."
When pressed for details about that preparation, he indicated the horses would be hosed down and additional ice would be available, though it was unclear whether that ice was for the horses or the patrons.
Kay said his priorities for NYRA are threefold: to enhance the customers' experience; to improve the racing product; and to prepare the organization for re-privatization in October 2015. He returned to those themes in his answers to multiple questions, from what would enable him to earn performance incentives to how he plans to improve the customer service experience.
Indicating he would be assessed on how well he's moving NYRA toward successful re-privatization, he said, "My objectives are in line with what the performance metrics are going to be. It's going to be how well we perform, and how well we provide a great experience for the fans."
Pressed for specifics by one reporter, he indicated he had already answered the question, adding, "I don't want to be argumentative with you...you should ask the chairman of the board."
Regarding customer service, Kay said he would like to provide patrons at the racetrack with an experience not available through simulcasting. Though he indicated he had some ideas for how to accomplish that, he said they would first be vetted by others in the organization, and then announced.
With the possibility of expanded gaming coming to New York State and a vote on the issue on this fall's ballot, Kay believes the addition of casinos could be beneficial to racing.
"One of the things you learn from the businesses I've been involved in is there's always competition," he explained. "You need to be able to provide a better experience to compete effectively."
Kay said the most important experience he brought to NYRA was figuring out ways for people to work together and find solutions. Kay believes this skill is essential in working with a variety of stakeholders in the re-privatization process.
He added that his work at Universal theme parks immersed him in the concept of creating an "outstanding, enhanced" guest experience.
Citing studies that indicate the racing industry is worth $4.2 billion to the state economy, Kay said that he was attracted to the idea of working in an industry of such significance to the state. As a sports fan, he said being involved in a sporting industry was "fantastic." Earlier in his career, Kay tried unsuccessfully to bring a professional baseball team to Florida.
"There's an incredible amount of passion for horse racing with the public," he observed. "We need to remember how many people in this state are true fans of horse racing."
On the evening of July 17, Kay will make his first public appearance at the Saratoga meet preview at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He will be joined on a panel by NYRA vice president and director of racing P.J. Campo, jockey John Velazquez, trainer Linda Rice, and turf writer Michael Veitch.