While pari-mutuel handle continues to fall and several prominent racetracks have closed their doors in recent years, New York Racing Association president Chris Kay provided some good news April 29, when he outlined changes that helped fuel a profitable year at NYRA in 2014.
Kay was the luncheon speaker at the National Conference on Equine Law Wednesday at Keeneland in Lexington. He pointed to an emphasis on improving fan experience and the racing product at NYRA tracks as keys to the racing association's first profitable season in 13 years.
Kay said Kentucky Horse Racing Commission chairman Bob Beck, a Lexington attorney, asked him to present at the conference. In describing the structural hurdles faced by the state-appointed board in October 2012, along with the management team that followed, Kay played to the crowd.
"(Beck) gave me two topics and he said I can talk about either of the two," Kay said. "He said I could describe the corporate structure of the New York Racing Association or explain the rule against perpetuities. I'm a very competitive guy and I chose the harder of the two: the structure of the New York Racing Association."
Kay said NYRA has emphasized fan experience and improved racing product. He credited those efforts in helping NYRA finish $1.5 million in the black last year.
"This is a reformed, revitalized, and financially sustainable enterprise," said Kay, who will stay in Kentucky and attend the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 2 at Churchill Downs. "NYRA ended 2014 with its first operating surplus, or profit, in 13 years. For 13 years, both prior to, while in bankruptcy, and after bankruptcy, we had been generating deficits."
On the track, Kay has been pleased with the move to big race days, a strategy championed by director of racing operations Martin Panza. Kay noted that those days will be expanded this year, with Belmont Stakes (gr. I) week featuring a race draw at Rockefeller Center, 17 graded stakes races from Thursday through Saturday Belmont weekend, and concerts after the races June 5-6.
The Stars and Stripes Day at Belmont Park, which emphasizes international racing, already has commitments for 11 European-based horses this year and more are expected.
This year's Travers Stakes (gr. I) card at Saratoga Race Course will feature five other grade I races, which Kay called a "mini-Breeders' Cup." New York-breds will receive the spotlight the Friday before Travers day, as the Saratoga Showcase day will be moved to that date on the calendar. Whitney Stakes (gr. I) day will feature two other graded stakes.
When fans turn out for these events, Kay noted that they'll be seeing NYRA facilities that received $27 million in upgrades in the past year. Those improvements include high-definition video boards at Belmont Park, which also will feature 650 new HD television sets. Saratoga boasts 757 new HD televisions, a new sound system, enhanced Wi-Fi, and 200 new picnic tables.
NYRA also pumped $14 million in improvements into the Aqueduct Racetrack facility, which featured upgrades throughout the property, new restaurants, new seating, and a new state-of-the-art simulcasting facility. Kay said the 250 betting stations at that simulcasting facility are filled for racing from Aqueduct, Belmont, or Saratoga.
Kay noted that NYRA also has worked hard to improve on-track safety and integrity.
"For the past 2 1/2 years, our team has worked hard to implement structural and operational reforms, effectuate change, and most importantly generate results," Kay said. "We made substantial progress enhancing the guest experience and improving the quality of racing, as well as running a business with stronger financial principals. We've made substantial progress on accountability and improving safety. And in continuing to contribute mightily to our portion of the $2.1 billion annual economic impact (by horse racing in the state) and 17,000 jobs in the New York economy."
Kay said NYRA is poised to move forward.
"We're uniquely positioned to grow racing in New York and beyond," he said.