A year after his first experience with the intense scrutiny that comes with the opening of the Saratoga Race Course meet, a more confident, knowledgeable, and experienced Chris Kay once again invited members of the media to discuss the racing season and the future of the New York Racing Association.
Kay took over as NYRA president and CEO on July 1 of last year, barely two weeks before heading upstate to launch the 2013 Saratoga meet. With a year of navigating the leadership of one of racing's highest-profile circuits under his belt, Kay met July 16 with members of both the press and the public.
He reiterated what have over the last year become common themes in his public statements: the three-pronged goal of enhancing the experience of NYRA's customers; improving the quality of racing; and creating a sustainable business plan for NYRA's reorganization in 2015, when its term under state control will come to an end.
At a morning media event, Kay was joined by Martin Panza, NYRA's senior vice president of racing operations; Frank Gabriel, racing secretary for the Saratoga meet; and Hugh Gallagher, newly appointed safety steward.
In discussing changes for this year's meet, Kay said the organization has spent $2 million to upgrade televisions throughout the plant. Customers can also expect a more robust Wi-Fi signal and an improved sound system, he said, all undertaken in response to complaints from the public.
Panza said customers can also expect to see fewer races run, the organization having made the decision, based on a declining foal crop, to run fewer races with bigger fields. The decision, Kay acknowledged, might lead initially to lower handle figures in comparison with previous years, when cards with 10-plus races daily were not uncommon.
Kay also admitted that NYRA's new giveaway policy, which limits the number of vouchers customers can purchase at one time and under which the vouchers will not be considered as part of the day's attendance, would result in lower attendance. Typically, official giveaway day attendance could reach upwards of 50,000.
The CEO brushed aside the suggestion that this year's increased admission prices—$5 for the grandstand, $8 for the clubhouse—might lead to fewer visitors to the track this year.
With handle and attendance prominent markers of the success of the Saratoga meet, Kay seemed undaunted that both have the potential to be lower this year than in the past, focusing instead of the prospect of a budget surplus for 2014 and emphasizing, as he's done in the past, the need to "make more money than we spend."
Looming behind such statements is always the specter of losing video lottery terminal revenue from the Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack. But while stressing the need for racing's financial success, Kay said that in his perspective, "the VLT money belongs to NYRA."
In an evening event at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Kay and Panza were joined by Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard; racing analyst and former jockey Richard Migliore; and Terry Finley, president and founder of West Point Thoroughbreds.
Responding to questions from the audience, Panza fended off criticism about increasing the value of the $1.5 million Whitney Handicap, now worth more than Saratoga's flagship race, the $1.25 million Travers Stakes (both gr. I).
"The Travers is already marquee," Panza pointed out. "It takes more money to get the older horses here (for the Whitney); there are a lot of $1 million races they can run in. I'm trying to get the best horses in America to come for the Whitney."
Said Kay: "The fact that one race is worth more than the other doesn't diminish in any way the value of the Travers. In golf, you have the four majors. The Masters pays less to its champion, yet everyone wants to win that event."
Panza also said that NYRA is working toward bringing the Breeders' Cup World Championships back to New York, which has not hosted the event since 2005. He characterized the Breeders' Cup as "very interested" in coming back to New York and said that he expects to see the state as part of the regular rotation of host sites for the event again in the future.
Asked what he was most looking forward to about this year's meet, Kay pointed to Saratoga's showcase day for New York-breds Aug. 24, noting the significance of the economic impact of the state's racing and breeding industries.
The day he is least looking forward to, he said, is Aug. 31, the day that announcer Tom Durkin will call his last race. Kay added that NYRA will celebrate Durkin's career this fall at Belmont Park on the day of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), scheduled for Sept. 27 (subject to approval).
Throughout both events Wednesday, Kay emphasized pride in the New York racing program, the changes made under his leadership over the last year, and NYRA's dedication to improving the experience of its customers, with especial attention, given his audience, to Saratoga.
"This hallowed ground is our house," he said, "and the people who come through the turnstiles are our guests."