By Teresa Genaro
At Saratoga Race Course last summer, Chris Kay proved himself to be a man who likes a big event, as he embraced a summer of stakes and celebrations in honor of 150 years of racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Through the fall, winter, and early spring, Kay's profile was decidedly lower, but as he approaches his first Belmont Stakes (gr. I), the chief executive officer of the New York Racing Association again looks like a man who can't wait to throw a party.
Long before California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Preakness Stakes (both gr. I), Kay was re-envisioning what Belmont Stakes day would look like. With senior vice president of racing operations Martin Panza, he shifted the spring racing calendar, moving the historic Metropolitan Mile (gr. I) from its traditional spot on Memorial Day to the day of the Belmont Stakes.
During a winter conference call, he hinted that prices would rival those of the Kentucky Derby. He promised upgraded hospitality and entertainment options.
Not all of those early plans came to pass. While this year's Belmont will indeed see new dining areas, and Kay did book higher-profile musicians such as LL Cool J, prices have remained relatively modest for clubhouse and grandstand general admission at $30 and $10 respectively. Good grandstand seats, near the sixteenth pole, were offered for less than $100, a relative bargain in the New York City market, in which the cheapest face-value seats for the New York Rangers' upcoming Stanley Cup Final appearance at Madison Square Garden are $180.
Like seats at the Garden, reserved seats for the Belmont are long since sold out. According to Kay, 80% of reserved seating was sold before the May 3 Kentucky Derby, and by post time of the Preakness fewer than 50 reserved seats were still available.
"That's in response to the great race card we put together," Kay said the weekend of May 31 at Belmont Park. "That gives me an idea that the public responded well to the announced changes, and that they were planning to come to the Belmont with or without a Triple Crown on the line."
New this year is the Champagne Room, located in what used to be the Belmont Café on the ground floor of the clubhouse, and a trackside tent in which seats were sold for $1,000 each. The new venues mean the clubhouse apron will no longer be available to the general public, limited to those who have purchased tickets, which are sold out, for the hospitality areas.
In response to demand, new bleacher seats are being set up on the final turn. They were offered first to people who had tried to purchase a box or a table only to find out none was available. The grandstand apron will remain unchanged, Kay said, with benches for those purchasing general admission tickets.
NYRA also upgraded cellular phone and wifi services. For wifi there will be two access points in the new Trophy Room, and added access points at the barber shop, which is now an auxiliary photo area; in the grandstand on the second floor for another auxiliary press area; and near the Belmont Café for Ticketmaster scanning.
Cellular service through Verizon and Sprint will be boosted by an additional tower located on site. With local cell towers unable to handle the increased traffic of text messages, phone calls, and the data and mobile wagering demands of tens of thousands of customers, Kay has worked with local carriers to bulk up service, though he admits that it's probably impossible to offer enough service to accommodate a crowd that could easily reach 100,000.
Kay consistently has shied from guessing what he thinks this year's crowd will be June 7. He instead emphasizes that what matters is not how many people show up, but the quality of their experience at Belmont.
With that in mind, he has suggested there may come a point at which general admission tickets will be sold out, though he has not offered details of what that point might be. Instead he is encouraging those wishing to attend to purchase their tickets ahead of time to avoid the disappointment of showing up and being told none are available.
"I'm more committed to people having a great time than breaking a record for attendance," he said.
The changes Kay and his team have made in advance of this year's event have been in direct response to complaints from previous years. After touring NFL and NBA facilities to see the food and beverage options on offer in luxury box areas, Kay made the call to ask Centerplate, the concessionaire of NYRA, to set up stations throughout the grandstand that will offer made-to-order sandwiches and salads.
When people think about a Triple Crown at Belmont, they too often think about Big Brown 's 2008 run, which took place on an uncomfortably hot and humid day made unbearable to many people when the plumbing malfunctioned and toilets throughout the track ceased working. Well aware of that incident, Kay said the cause of the problem that day were screens in the sewer system that had not been properly maintained.
"We have made sure those screens are clean," Kay said. "We had someone out two weeks ago to clean them, and they'll be coming again this week. This is an issue we are on top of, and we've spent a great deal of time and effort making sure that something like that doesn't happen again."
Kay is also thinking ahead to how he can parlay the success of Belmont Stakes day. Those who purchased box or reserved seat tickets received a free general admission ticket for the revamped racing card on July 5, featuring five graded stakes including the inaugural Belmont Derby Invitational and Belmont Oaks Invitational (both gr. IT).
"As you leave Belmont on Saturday, you'll see a lot about coming back for the Stars and Stripes program," Kay said. "We'll use a lot of the information that we received from people purchasing tickets online to connect with you between now and July 5. That will be our next big day."