By Teresa Genaro
The New York Racing Association, as many had expected, on June 18 hired Christopher Kay as its chief executive officer, effective July.
The vote was unanimous during a late afternoon meeting. The CEO position has been vacant for about a year.
NYRA board chair David Skorton called Kay a "dream candidate" and praised his high ethical standards, creativity, and "even-keeled" temperament. Skorton said Kay had demonstrated effectiveness in "finding solutions in complex situations."
Among the issues facing NYRA is the future of Aqueduct Racetrack, the re-privatization of the organization following a three-year state takeover, and the possible opening of full-scale casinos in the state, currently under discussion in Albany.
The 60-year-old Kay comes to NYRA most recently from The Trust for Public Land, where, as chief operating officer, he oversaw the operations of the land conservation organization's headquarters and 37 field offices. During his tenure, Kay said, the organization acquired more than three million acres of land that was converted into local, state, or federal parks.
Prior to that position, Kay was a consultant to Universal Parks & Resorts, serving as its managing director of international business development. From 2001-06, Kay served as the chief operating officer for Toys 'R' Us, a Fortune 200 international company, and prior to that he was the retailer's executive vice president of operations and general counsel.
While Kay has never worked in the racing industry, he said he "fell in love" with the sport when he went to the track for the first time at age 19. A graduate of the University of Missouri and of the Duke University School of Law, Kay attended high school in St. Louis., Mo., and made frequent summer trips to Cahokia Downs, which was located across the river from St. Louis.
In his career as an attorney, Kay said he worked at a firm that represented people with racing interests in South Carolina and Kentucky. He also said he had a business relationship and friendship with Thoroughbred owner Don Dizney, and that he at one point considered buying partnership shares in some of Dizney's horses, including grade I winner Wekiva Springs.
Kay was chosen from a field of approximately 100 candidates, according to John Keitt of RSR Partners, the firm the board engaged to conduct the search. NYRA's search committee was comprised of Skorton and board members Bobby Flay, Stuart Janney III, Earle Mack, and Jane Rosenthal.
The international pool of candidates represented the Thoroughbred, casino, sport, and resort industries as well as senior executives in other areas, officials said.
Said Skorton: "We felt it was important to have someone with leadership and management experience, and while Chris has some familiarity with racing, we didn't think that was the key thing.
"Chris cares about racing, he loves it, and he wants it to succeed," Skorton said. "He's also a very strong manager and leader of different types of organizations–for profit, not for profit–and he has worked in organizations that have had to deal with the government sector."
Kay offered four reasons for his interest in the job. "Some of the finest racetracks in America are under NYRA," he said. "There's a tremendous board, the locations of the tracks are fantastic, and they have strong, passionate fans. Those are the four foundational blocks for great success."
Kay said one of his first orders of business would be to hire someone with racing experience to oversee day-to-day operations. He also cited as among his priorities enhancing the experience for customers at the track and recruiting new fans; working with board members and state government on re-privatizing the organization; and improving the purses and quality of racing at Belmont Park, Aqueduct, and Saratoga Race Course.
"This is a world-class board, and the opportunity to work with them to create new solutions is very attractive," Kay said. "I want to learn from the mistakes of the past, and there's so much talent (on the board). We can create a future for decades to come for success in horse racing in the state."
At previous board meetings it was suggested Kay's salary would be $300,000 annually with the opportunity to earn $250,000 in bonuses. Though Skorton declined to say specifically what would trigger those incentives, he indicated they would be both financial and qualitative, emphasizing those bonuses are in no way guaranteed.
Kay said that in advance of his July 1 start date he would be traveling to Lexington to receive a racing education. He didn't offer his specific plans, but said: "I plan to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can in every venue I can."
The board also voted to submit a request for proposal in order to re-bid for its tote contract. After the initial bidding process, an internal board audit discovered that NYRA had failed to specify the minimum qualifications for bidders, which is stipulated by its own procurement protocols.