As David O'Rourke prepares to oversee his first Belmont Stakes since he was named chief executive officer and president of the New York Racing Association, he looks to a future filled with an equal measure of peril and potential.
A disturbing string of equine fatalities has placed Thoroughbred racing under immense pressure to reform. The expected proliferation of betting on all sports could be a boon or a blow to racing in New York and elsewhere. A much-needed renovation of Belmont Park offers exciting possibilities.
The array of issues will surely provide O'Rourke, 45, with a stern test, one that NYRA board member and leading New York owner Michael Dubb fully expects him to pass.
“We're going to have to evolve in order to survive,” Dubb said. “And David is of the right mindset and the right age to understand that process and guide us to the best possible outcome.”
Terry Finley, a member of the Board of Directors of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and head of West Point Thoroughbreds, also endorsed NYRA's new leader while acknowledging the need for change during troubling times.
“We've got to walk the walk more as opposed to just talking the talk,” Finley said. “David is not a guy who talks a lot, but he certainly walks the walk.”
O'Rourke emphasizes his determination to do everything possible to limit fatalities that have always been an inevitable part of training and racing. “As the science and data point out other areas we can focus on and improve, we'll keep doing that. We'll keep pushing the envelope,” he said. “There is nothing more important to us than having a safe event.”
O'Rourke was named to his position on an interim basis on Jan. 23, following the ignominious departure of his predecessor. Christopher Kay abruptly resigned amid reports that he used NYRA employees to work on his house in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. NYRA's Board of Directors removed the interim tag and committed to O'Rourke on March 26.
While Kay was outgoing and seemingly gravitated to photo opportunities, the man following him appears to be significantly more reserved. He is depicted by many who know him as a good listener whose business acumen contributed to an all-sources handle that totaled $2.1 billion in 2018 despite the loss of 10 full racing days due to poor weather.
The development of the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, in its fifth year, contributed to that success and helps to drive interest when there is no Triple Crown at stake. The three-day Festival, which begins on Thursday, offers 18 stakes. There will be eight Grade 1 races on Saturday as part of a loaded card that culminates in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
O'Rourke had been on a fast track since he joined NYRA as Director of Financial Planning in 2008. He became Vice President of Corporate Development two years later and was named Chief Revenue Officer and Senior Vice President three years after that.
He helped to develop NYRA Bets into an easy-to-navigate advance deposit wagering platform that is available in 30 states. He also contributed significantly to greater television exposure through the expansion of Belmont Park Live and Saratoga Live.
“I came in on the finance side and moved over to business development,” O'Rourke noted. “Now, it gives me an opportunity to focus on the broader picture.”
O'Rourke's business acumen is readily apparent. Current issues, though, may call for finesse in certain situations, a more forceful approach at other times. Dubb, for one, sounds combative when asked about those who seek to abolish racing.
“There are tens of thousands of jobs, if not more, related to the horse racing industry,” he said. “We're not going to let people take those away from us.”
The issue of sports betting also is complex. “Sports wagering is both an opportunity and a risk for horsemen and for NYRA,” Finley said. “No one can say for certain what the path is for sports betting in New York.”
O'Rourke appeared at a New York State Senate hearing in early May to urge that NYRA be allowed to play a role if, and when, the state approves wagering on all sports. At present, such wagering would be allowed only in four casinos in upstate New York.
“We are on record that we believe it is extremely important for our industry, and NYRA specifically, to participate in sports betting,” he said. “We would like to, at some point in the future, offer sports betting at our facilities and online, if possible. We think there are a lot of synergies between our clientele and sports betting clientele. Essentially, we are sports betting. We're already in this.”
He said Belmont's renovation will be done with an eye toward accommodating potential wagering on all sports and toward hosting the Breeders' Cup World Championships on a fairly regular basis. Due partly to a lack of luxury suites and other amenities, the Breeders' Cup has not come to the massive New York market since 2005.
O'Rourke was particularly outspoken on the issue of caring for backstretch employees.
“There are roughly 1,000 people living on the backstretch right now,” he said. “That is our community, so this is an everlasting theme for us: 'How do we improve the life and welfare of the people who take care of our equine athletes?' It's a big responsibility, but it's a rewarding one at the same time.”
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has contributed to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Paulick Report, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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