by Teresa Genaro
A public hearing held by the New York Racing Association at Belmont Park June 15 was intended to focus on racing, wagering, and marketing, but within minutes of its 9:30 a.m. EDT start, it turned into an acrimonious, impromptu union meeting.
Dozens of NYRA employees and union representatives packed the small room in which the meeting was held, demanding to know why NYRA had spent "$1 million" on a mural and increased compensation to management while members of the labor forces worked for what were described as "poverty wages." It was revealed in 2012 that NYRA had commissioned a $250,000 mural by Peb to update his original painting that hangs in Belmont's clubhouse and depicts the history of New York racing.
Moderator Andy Serling, one of NYRA's racing analysts, attempted in vain to steer the discussion to the announced topics for the meeting, which were based on responses to fan surveys. Union representative Julia Rybak, an organizing supervisor at the Hotel Trades Council, repeatedly asked about the current status of labor negotiations and for an explanation of why workers had not received a raise in five years.
Sitting on the panel were David O'Rourke, NYRA's vice president of corporate development; P.J. Campo, vice president and director of racing; Stephen Travers, vice president of hospitality, guest services, and group sales; and Rodnell Workman, vice president and chief marketing officer. O'Rourke is a member of the three-person interim management team; a new chief executive officer is expected to be named at a NYRA board meeting July 18.
In response to Rybak's question, Travers said none of the four people on the panel had been involved in the labor negotiations, which further raised the ire of the crowd, which accused the panelists of ducking the union's questions. O'Rourke acknowledged that the union's concerns are valid; he said NYRA needed to understand more about them, and that the conversation was more appropriate to have at the negotiating table.
As additional security was brought in and it became clear that the questions would not be addressed, the union representatives and NYRA workers filed out. They appeared to make up about half of the approximately 125 people in attendance.
While several of those who remained raised issues about which they were dissatisfied, none of the conversations reached the level of acrimony of the labor issue. Among the concerns raised by patrons were the sense that Belmont is being neglected with more attention paid to Saratoga Race Course and Aqueduct Racetrack; the cost of admission and concessions at the track; and the lack of a steward to represent the public's interests. Currently, NYRA has three stewards, one representing NYRA, one The Jockey Club, and one the New York Gaming Commission.
In response to a request to vary the wagering menu, O'Rourke confirmed that NYRA has requested permission from the gaming commission to offer a 50-cent Pick 5 with a 15% takeout rate.
Tom Tweedy, mayor of Floral Park, which abuts Belmont, read a statement saying he would like to explore developing green technology and enhancing the track's infrastructure in order to guarantee a comfortable setting for the patrons, in the hope the Breeders' Cup would make Belmont its permanent home.
Several attendees praised NYRA's increased attention to horse safety, particularly the use of surveillance in the barns of certain trainers, and the public posting of the veterinarian records of horses entered in the Belmont and Travers stakes (both gr. I). One person inquired about whether it was possible for the names of horses' attending veterinarians to be available to the public; Campo said he would discuss its feasibility with the stewards and the gaming commission.
While few of the suggestions broke any significant new ground, Workman said after the meeting he learned "quite a bit" from the audience's suggestions, and that he thought the panelists were able to provide information of which the general public is not aware.
O'Rourke said that he's looking forward to getting back to the negotiating table and resolving the issues with the union.
"All of our employees are extremely important to us," O'Rourke said after the meeting. "We want to do what's best for NYRA and for our employees, and that only comes with a dialogue. This obviously wasn't the right forum for that dialogue, but we look forward to sitting down, and we'll resolve it."
NYRA expects to hold a second public meeting this summer at Saratoga.