It really is a new day at the New York Racing Association, thanks to the enlightened leadership of Barry Schwartz, who last October was elected chairman of the formerly staid organization -- one that sunk to an all-time low in 1995 when a puny crowd of 37,171 turned out for the Belmont Stakes.
Schwartz brought several unique qualifications to the helm of the NYRA. With boyhood friend Calvin Klein, he helped launch and develop a cutting-edge clothing company that revolutionized the fashion industry, particularly in the area of marketing. Also, Schwartz became interested in racing as a fan, not as a third-generation blueblood. In fact, 34 years ago, his first date with future wife Sheryl was a trip to Roosevelt Raceway for the harness races. He admits to tapping out at the track and not having enough for bus fare back home more than a few times.
That interest as a player has helped NYRA connect with its fan base like never before. Schwartz is using the nyra.com Web site to poll the public and, as a result, several operational changes already have been made. He also is working to reduce the takeout, something near and dear to the hearts of big bettors.
Schwartz' working-class upbringing (his father owned a grocery store in Harlem) and later success as a businessman have given him a chance to see how both sides live. Perhaps that's why he and Sheryl are so involved with charities, or why he and his wife are more open when it comes to politics. While the NYRA board has tended to lean heavily to the right, Schwartz was a contributor to Democrat Al Gore's presidential campaign and to Hillary Rodham Clinton's run for the U.S. Senate (although, like any seasoned handicapper, he hedged his bets by also contributing to Clinton's Republican opponent, Rick Lazio).
Those political connections helped NYRA score a major coup at this year's Belmont Stakes, when former President Bill Clinton accompanied his senator wife for an afternoon at the races. Schwartz and NYRA president Terry Meyocks spent the day in a first-row clubhouse box with the former first couple, who alternately elicited cheers and jeers from the New York crowd on the apron below them throughout the day. Without question, the Clintons added a significant buzz to a 133rd Belmont Stakes that already was buoyed by record handle and the largest crowd -- 73,857 -- to ever attend when a Triple Crown wasn't on the line.
Going to the races is old hat for the former president, who flew back from Europe early on the morning of the Belmont. Clinton grew up in the shadow of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., where he learned the fine art of handicapping from his mother, Virginia Kelley, a regular at Oaklawn who made frequent visits to many other tracks, from Saratoga to Del Mar. She died two years into her son's presidency.
"When I was a young man, whenever I was in town during the racing season, if I wanted to see my mother I had to go to the track," Clinton recalled. "She was a wonderful, wonderful woman, and the only thing that would have made this more perfect today is if she'd been here. But Hillary and I had a grand time."
Clinton showed off a real knowledge of the game, citing the large fields for the Derby that can lead to favorites losing so often, and saying that the Belmont is the truest test of the three Triple Crown races. He also gave reporters one of his handicapping secrets.
"I never make a real decision on a race, a big race, until I go to the paddock," he said. "When I watched the horses walk around in the paddock, I looked at Hillary and said, 'This is going to be Point Given's day today.' You could really see it."
It was NYRA's day, too, a brand new one that should only get better.