The Breeders’ Cup Forum: A New Way Forward for NYRA?

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The recent history of New York racing might best be described by the opening lines of a Charles Dickens novel: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

Just as the state’s racing and breeding industries were being revitalized by proceeds from the new casino at Aqueduct, a rash of racehorse fatalities at the same track attracted a harsh spotlight.  A takeout scandal, in which bettors were being overcharged, led to the firing of Charles Hayward as president and CEO of the New York Racing Association. There was criticism of budget oversight and a plan by state government to privatize NYRA.

But the agency’s board of directors hope this week they’ve found the man to put NYRA on a road to less turbulent, more consistent times as it makes a significant transition.  Christopher Kay will take over as president and CEO July 1.  Kay, 60, most recently handled operations for the Trust for Public Land and its 37 field offices.  The attorney has also been an executive with Universal Parks & Resorts and Toys ‘R’ Us.

In a brief press release and Q and A released Tuesday, Kay discussed his background, his love of racing despite having little experience with the industry, and the appeal of his new job.  We followed up with a few questions of our own.

What are your impressions about the state of horse racing in general and specifically New York racing?
I think that there’s a great history. I think there is a great deal of interest among fans. There are a lot of committed horse racing fans. There are a lot of people that have invested many years of their lives as horsemen in the industry. And so there’s the potential for us to be better than some of the things that may have occurred in the last couple of years. I’d like to think that the situation right now is such that the state and NYRA will be working together to create a structure and a solution that will ensure the success of horse racing in New York for many years to come, and that’s one of the reasons why I joined as the CEO to be a part of that process.

Having something of an outsider’s perspective on the industry, how do you think that will serve you in this role?
I’m going to try to be very objective. That’s what I’ve done my entire career, and that’s the approach I’m going to take here. I know that there are different ways to look at problems and opportunities and challenges. I’m going to try to take an objective and positive frame of mind towards all of these and help others do the same.

What areas do you feel you might need to get know better to understand racing as an industry?
I’ve been blessed as a lawyer to represent a variety of different industries, and so initially, I had to learn a great deal about each one of them. I’ve learned that you can never know enough, so you always keep learning. So just about every area of every industry that I have represented, I continued to learn more about it. The same will be true with racing.

Christopher Kay

Christopher Kay

So whether you’re talking about the financial viability, the strengths and weaknesses, whether you’re talking about the capital improvement needs, whether you’re talking about regulatory issues, in every one of those areas, I’m going to try to learn as much as I can.

When you were asked about your top priorities, you mentioned a three-year strategy for NYRA. Can you talk a little bit about that?
The board of directors has set a plan over the three-year period of time of things that must be achieved. And that plan is what we will execute to. Now, I said in the Q and A such things as enhancing the guest experience, improving the purses and the quality of horse racing, and working with all the affected parties, including state government, to create a re-privatized NYRA. Those are some of the most important elements in the NYRA board’s three-year plan work plan.

Are there things outside of that plan you already have your eye on that you might want to pursue?
There isn’t anything that I have my eye on at the moment. I want to go in, and I want to listen and ask a lot of questions and learn as much as I can, as opposed to coming in with some preconceived ideas about what must be done. However, I do understand the three-year working plan, and I do intend to get that done.

On the privatization issue, what do you consider the pros and cons of pursuing that strategy?
I don’t think that the state wants to run NYRA as one of its agencies. I don’t think anybody wants that. So, to re-privatize (NYRA) will meet the needs of the governor and the state legislature and the needs and desires of horsemen and everyone else associated with NYRA.

But there will certainly be adjustments and obstacles to overcome. What are those obstacles?
I don’t want to answer that question right now because I simply don’t know. A similar question was asked earlier of me, and I said when we decided to go through a strategic review of Toys R Us, there were three or four different roads we could travel. And during the process, we thought we’d purse one structure, and then a couple of months later, we learned certain things, and we said oh, no, we should pursue a different structure, and then a change in the marketplace occurred, and we chose a third structure. Based upon my experience, it might not be the best course of action for somebody to start on his first day and assume he knows exactly what’s going to happen.

Takeout remains a sensitive issue in New York, particularly in light of errors that helped lead to the ouster of the previous leadership. What steps might be taken to address concerns by the betting public at this point?
Good question, and one of the first things I’m going to be looking at: Number one, how do we make it easier for everybody to understand what the rules are and adhering to them, and then, number two, to be able to generate the kind of confidence and trust that the public will have. It’s my understanding, based upon the steps that have been taken, that the mistake that was made in the past has been completely rectified, and judging from the people I’ve seen at Belmont, I think the confidence is there.

Why do you think you were hired for this position?
That question was asked yesterday, and (NYRA Chairman David Skorton) answered it by saying, what the board was looking for was somebody that has skill in management and had leadership skills. And that’s why I was chosen. David pointed out that the problems that NYRA experienced in the past are not on the racing or operational side of the business. It was because of management and leadership. And so, to use his words, those are the critical criteria that were employed by the search committee, and that’s the reason they selected me.

You’ve obviously had a few different roles. Is there anything that compares to this? Have you stepped into a situation like this before?
That’s a great question. I hope that I can bring a variety of different experiences from other chapters of my career to help NYRA in this particular role. When I was practicing law, I was involved in a number of projects where you needed to make determinations like those that will be made in the re-privatization. And some of them are situations where you don’t really have a precedent to follow, and you had to be creative. I think some of the things I’ve done in the past will be helpful in that regard.

I think that we also want to provide great racing to those loyal fans that we have and continue to do so. We want to provide a better guest experience, and clearly Universal Studios has provided a great guest experience to its guests for many, many years. In addition to keeping a strong relationship with our existing fans, I hope we can go out and bring new people to the sport, people between the ages of 18 and 34, more women, and those are the kinds of people we were able to connect with so successfully at Toys R Us. So you put all that together, and hopefully I can draw from the various experiences to help NYRA succeed both today and in the future.

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  • Racemaven

    There it is in a nutshell. Re-privatize NYRA. Forget about all the mumbo-jumbo about the fans, etc. Gov. Cuomo wants NYRA off its books now that he “used” it to get his casino plan off the ground. Sad!
    Racemaven

  • Jim

    The key will be who he hires underneath him for the day to day. My money is that it’s people who are not retreads. Based on his background with commercial companies perhaps we see some youth injected into leadership roles at NYRA? 40 under 40 club at NYRA.

    • nu-fan

      Exactly right. Can’t underestimate the importance of the staff that he hires. He needs those who can provide the important details that are necessary in his making those critical decisions. But, I would assume that he already knows that considering his career background.

  • 4Bellwether666

    He (and the folks under him) need to get it through their heads that fans and gamblers are two different animals…

    • nu-fan

      I’m sure that Mr. Kay understands market segmentation and will address both groups as different segments.

      • 4Bellwether666

        Well he mentions the fans two times…The public once…and the gamblers zero…With out the gamblers “THE GAME” would be SOL…Lets hope you are correct…We have heard about the labor pains in NY and beyond for way to long…Its time they show us the baby…ty…

  • salthebarber

    His focus on the customer is refreshing. Coming from the outside, it seems very logical to him. I wonder how long it will take for him to be totally comsumed by the trainers and owners of the game. In racing the owner/trainer combo somehow become a roadblock to the actual customer. I truly hope Kay avoids this trap.

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