Christopher Kay ended his Dec. 10 keynote address at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming with a tongue-in-cheek invitation.
"I'd be glad to answer any questions you have at this time–except for those on price increases," said Kay, president and chief executive officer of the New York Racing Association.
Kay, who has been on the job about six months, has answered the question of proposed admission fee increases at Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course many times in the past week. His talk at the Race Track Industry Program event was geared toward plans by NYRA to enhance the racetrack experience, improve the quality of the racing program, and prepare for re-privatization of the three-track franchise.
Kay, who has a legal, retail, and entertainment background, said he continues to learn about the horse racing industry.
"I'm not a horseman but I do have the utmost respect for the sport and the people in it," he said. "When we can connect the public with the great people in this sport, we will succeed."
Kay is operating on a fairly tight schedule if in fact New York State plans to privatize NYRA by the fall of 2015. Given history, it seems a stretch; the structure of any privatization remains open to speculation.
"We're trying to create an organization with many unique and diverse aspects, but we have to get it right," Kay said. "We need wise use of our resources and we need new ideas. We're on the right course but there is room for considerable improvement of our organization."
Kay noted customers are now referred to as "guests." He said racetracks in particular have a challenge because many of those guests end up losing money before they leave the premises.
"We have to focus with laser-like precision on our guests," Kay said. "We don't just point to the paddock or betting window, we walk the guest there. Our effort to enhance the guest experience is working. I've received countless e-mails and letters telling us the wonderful things we've done."
Attendance was off slightly during this year's Saratoga meet, but Kay uses a different metric. He said the amount of money spent per person at Saratoga was up from the previous year.
"Attendance doesn't spend money," Kay said. "People do."
NYRA plans to create marketing strategies for all segments of its business. Kay said that like any business, capturing the interest of those 18 to 34 years old is difficult, but he sees some progress.
Kay said the street art show at Aqueduct Racetrack is one example in that it attracted interest from a younger crowd. He noted Aqueduct is the only racetrack in New York City and therefore is easily accessible and close to a large population with disposable income.
"In New York City you had better have a place with a buzz, a vibe," Kay said.
Though Aqueduct is connected to a massive video lottery terminal casino with direct subway access, there has been talk at the state level of ending racing there and using only Belmont and Saratoga. The NYRA board already has suggested closing Aqueduct for training during its dark period for live racing.
Kay also said NYRA in 2014 plans to create family areas "where people can touch the horses," and reconfigure the open areas at Belmont to produce a cozier atmosphere. Belmont can accommodate 100,000 people but often 3,000 or less are in attendance.