by Teresa Genaro
After meeting with the media earlier in the day July 17, New York Racing Association president and chief executive officer Christopher Kay made his first public appearance at the annual Saratoga Race Course meet preview at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Kay was one of five panelists who took questions from moderator Brien Bouyea, the museum's communications coordinator, and the audience; joining him were NYRA vice president and director of racing P.J. Campo, trainer Linda Rice, jockey John Velazquez, and Turf writer Michael Veitch.
Kay's relaxed demeanor with the public contrasted sharply with his appearance earlier in the day, when he at times appeared impatient with reporters' questions. Kay engaged the audience warmly, often cracking jokes that brought appreciative laughter. He seemed determined to court the local community by praising its passion, commitment, and support for racing.
Kay characterized his first two weeks as the leader of NYRA as "invigorating," and he dispelled the idea that his first action as president was to travel to Lexington, a plan announced by the NYRA board of directors when Kay was appointed. Instead, Kay said, his first trip was to Saratoga Springs.
Though those gathered were obviously interested in hearing from Kay, they also directed questions to the other panelists, asking them about their favorite Saratoga moments. Campo announced that a day to honor recently retired jockey Ramon Dominguez is in the planning stages and expected to take place toward the end of the meet. Dominguez announced his retirement in June following a January riding accident in which he suffered a fractured skull.
When asked opinions on the biggest upset in Saratoga history, Veitch mentioned Jim Dandy's win in the 1930 Travers at 99-1 and Man o'War's defeat by Upset in the 1919 Sanford. Rice got the most enthusiastic response of the evening when she responded: "The biggest upset at Saratoga? When I beat Todd Pletcher" to win the 2009 Saratoga training title.
Kay and Velazquez spoke at length about the importance and appeal of gambling in a sport that is often marketed as a social, rather than a wagering, experience.
Velazquez shared a story about closing weekend at Belmont Park, when he met actor Bill Murray, who was filming a movie. According to Velazquez, the first questions Murray and his crew asked were about how to bet and what horse they should bet on. He emphasized the need for racetracks to educate fans about betting and the excitement of the sport.
Said Kay, a self-avowed sports fan: "This is what's unique about racing: Go to a baseball game, and you watch nine innings of a game to see if your team wins. At the track, you get to bet nine times a day, and you can be the winner. It's a more thrilling experience, and it happens nine or 10 times a day. It's an intellectual as well as an emotional experience."
Drawing on his experience as a consultant with Universal Studios theme parks, where he served as managing director of international business development, Kay noted that it's possible–essential, in fact–to develop different marketing strategies for racing's different audiences.
Kay said the involvement of racing's fans and supporters is crucial to racing's success. "Look at the fans we have," he said. "They're knowledgeable, committed, and active–fundamental foundation stones for a great organization."
Saratoga opens for its 144th racing meet July 19. The meet continues through Labor Day, with Tuesdays dark.