The New NYRA Customer Experience

by | 01.07.2014 | 4:52pm

I've always been an advocate of going out and supporting the live racing product even if that involves venturing out to Ozone Park, N.Y., to bet the inner track in the beginning of January. There's no reason why racing fans of all levels can't leave the warm confines of their home and abandon computer wagering for just one afternoon to socialize with real racing fans face-to-face, and perhaps revitalize some the past glorious social aspects of being on track.

That's what my annual New Years' Day trip to Aqueduct is all about – to meet and socialize with past Daily Racing Form friends and colleagues and start 2014 off by betting some hardcore winter racing from around the country. It may not be Gulfstream or Santa Anita, but it's our local Thoroughbred venue this time of year, and we were all ready to embrace and support new NYRA president Christopher Kay's establishment. More importantly, it's a time to turn off the cellphone, shut down the Twitter and Facebook account, and catch up “old school” style without technical distraction.

Fortunately, for most of the gang in my inner circle, we're all old enough now that New Year's Eve hangovers are no longer an issue. For better or worse, we were all bright-eyed and refreshed for the 12:25 p.m. New Year's post – while in years past at noonish we'd likely had just settled into a deep sleep from the night before after tearing up the town bar hopping in the city or going shot for shot at a friend's local holiday bash.

Not us veteran old-timers. We were delighted to stand in line with our green NYRA voucher to fetch our $2 calendar filled with beautiful photography from New York's best racing highlights of 2013. As I waited for the Aqueduct scratches, I quickly scanned my calendar and briefly relived the exciting stretch victories of Close Hatches, Point Of Entry, Palace Malice, Princess of Sylmar, Verrazano, and of course horse of the year Wise Dan. All the champions touched the NYRA circuit at some point during 2013, and were represented exquisitely in what was no doubt the best $2 investment we would make all afternoon.

My small New Year's Day betting circle of friends arrived one by one prior to post as we settled into Aqueduct's Champs Sport Bar on the second floor. We could have gotten a table in the upscale Equestris restaurant, but not us blue-collar types. We decided we'd continue to rough it with the regular crowd at Champs. Most of us were out of breath after walking a quarter mile to get to the track. Parking was sparse this holiday afternoon, and as one intelligent business owner and active gambler once pondered to me a long time ago … why is it that the racetrack is the only business in the world where the customers (paying patrons) have to park further away than the employers?

Although I wasn't surprised, most of Champs looked almost identical to last year's gathering. Most of the TV monitors had survived another year but had yet to get a transformation to flat-screen status. There were fewer tables to sit at, and the chairs that did exist looked like they had lost the battle with my neighbor's Siberian Husky over the stuffing in the cushion.

If you weren't lucky enough to arrive 40 minutes to post time, you had to wrestle with the locals for the few staggering plastic brown chairs that looked like they had been bought at auction after one of the local elementary schools shut down in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. There was no waitress service and no food. The spicy hot wings and Reuben sandwich I'd dreamt about coming over the Whitestone Bridge would have to wait for another day.

After a few races had passed my gang of four decided to treat ourselves to a New Year celebratory cocktail. It was then we discovered the birth of the $9 NYRA Heineken. A round of drinks that consisted of two Heinekens, one Coors light and a Rum and Coke came back a whopping $37. And it took about 11 minutes to get these drinks as the bartender scolded someone on her cellphone while waiting on me.

On a brighter note, there were new SAM machines in place and they seemed to be easy to maneuver, bettor-friendly and reliable.

The day was filled with some good laughs, a few winning tickets and a lot less rounds of cocktails than we had anticipated. After the last simulcast race at Gulfstream concluded we said our goodbyes to an afternoon of typical winter NYRA racing—a three-horse field in the opener and $99 winner named Tatoo Me in race 6.

Before taking the long trek back to my car, I decided to stop next door to take a brief look at Resorts World Casino. The relatively new monstrosity of a casino that generated a whopping $630 million in its first year of existence in 2012 sits only a couple hundred yards from Champs, but it might as well be as far away as China based on the décor and overall atmosphere. The Christmas tree that sits in the entrance of the casino could easily match the size and beauty of the one situated in Rockefeller Plaza. The holiday decorations are simply breathtaking. Resorts World is new, clean, inviting and filled with patrons. It's thriving.

Although racing bettors and patrons continually debate how to save racing and the benefits and harm of continuous racino birth and reconstruction. The question is simple. Would a basic facelift to racetrack really break the bank? Perhaps throwing a couple bucks towards some new seats and a new coat of paint. Or some new screens so you can watch a race without wondering what number or horse finished where? Or, maybe a betting venue where you can enjoy a reasonable lunch without breaking the bank?

Why is it that our Aqueduct experience seems to be the norm from track to track and city to city? Will it ever change?

To be fair some places have. Although I've yet to visit the new Meadowlands, I've heard some positive things about their new building and improved racing product.  They're making an effort while so many tracks still seem to be reluctant to embrace any positive change for the racing fan and day-to-day player. It starts with simple changes.

As of today, there's roughly 361 days until the annual 2014 Aqueduct Champs gathering.  And yes … God willing … my hardcore gang of racetrack diehards will be out to support our local venue once again. Perhaps we'll cash a ticket or two, have some old laughs, and maybe even have the privilege of tasting one of those famous $9 Heinekens.


Dean Keppler is the former Director of DRF Press for Daily Racing Form, where he orchestrated the organizing and creation of over 45 horse racing titles during his eight-year tenure. He has over 30 years' experience handicapping both Harness and Thoroughbreds. Keppler has authored several articles and books including Trainer Angles and Betting the Kentucky Derby. His third book Form Reversal: Increasing Profits Using Formulator and Cutting-Edge Trainer Stats, is scheduled for an early spring 2014 release. Keppler's work has appeared in The Saratoga Special, Horseplayer Magazine, Today's Racing Digest, The New York Times and Forbes magazine.

  • You can have all the lights and glitter in business, but you will not gain an advantage over your competition without superior customer service. We horseplayers (like Dean) almost expect race tracks not to have upgraded amenities anymore as most of it has been the same for decades. When they charge $9 for a beer and there are no waitresses around to serve you food, why would you go to the race track? Give us incentive to go or the crowds will just dwindle away as they die out, literally.

    • Why is this headlined as the “new” customer experience?

  • Hamish

    Sounds like the NYRA/NY State just trying to get to “reprivitization,” whatever that means. Perhaps they are thinking “why invest now when the new outfit might not have done the same,” sort of a waste of capital investment.

  • Figless

    Last year was the first New Year’s Day in ages that I did not spend at AQU, it simply wasn’t worth the effort the last time I visited, same exact experience in Champs except the locals apparently believed in BYOB because they had coolers and sandwiches with them IN the former restaurant. As tempted as I was I never bothered to attend the Wood or the Cigar Mile cards either. I continue to patronize Belmont but AQU is not getting my business until I hear something positive, the lack of parking and casino traffic just adds to the misery.

  • Quilla

    Cleaner restrooms.

    More seating.

    Free parking

    Free entrance.

    I’m not asking for much…

    • Wanna bet?

      (By the way, that Disqus symbol, to the left – isn’t that also the “handicapped services are available,” symbol, painted on the walls of airports, outside of the restrooms?)

  • jack

    This is completely opposite from what I hear on the steve byk show.

    • Which is why you should stop listening to the SB BS.

    • Then stop listening to the SB Show.

  • Sal Carcia

    Racing simply drove its fans away. All the other reasons are smoke screens. Kay is going to focus-group himself to death, when all he has to do is spend a day or so with his customers. Only then will he learn what he needs to do.

  • jack

    Dean, I’m curious would you have been allowed to write this critical article of ny racing while working for DRF?


  • Perplexed

    Traffic/Parking on New Years Day a total debacle. All traffic entering from the South side of the facility (Conduit Blvd/Belt Parkway) is channeled through one lane, creating a massive backup. Profitable because NYRA has eliminated the expense of two or three parking attendants, but extremely aggravating to the paying customer.

    I returned on the Saturday after New Years Day, and was charged $3 to park in a spot which used to be free; an added bonus was the fact that due to half hearted snow removal, I had to walk through a field of slush to get to the clubhouse.

    The nicest part of what used to be called the Clubhouse is the area adjacent to Equestris. I challenge Chris Kay to sit there (in seats which are reminiscent of a 1960s bowling alley) and tell me that he will be able to attract women to the racetrack, what with the sound of toilet seats slamming in the men’s room echoing throughout the facility. Even Equestris, which used to be quite nice, has fallen on hard times, doubling as an aviary as birds have taken refuge there during the bleak winter.

    Political changes affect the racing landscape and personal wagering habits. I for one am considering replacing my yearly sojourn to Saratoga with a voyage to Arapahoe Park for some Mile High racing.

    • AP is a great physical plant – and the customers themselves are the nicest people I’ve seen anywhere in America, bar none (with Keeneland and Del Mar running a close 2nd).

      In some other key (critical) respects, my guess is that after you go there once for your next summer trip, after leaving the place, you’ll never be so happy in your entire life as on the day when you return to Saratoga 12 months later.

  • It is extremely rare to find leaders who seek out the soldiers in the trenches and LISTEN, for the valuable clues to many issues that reside there. They prefer to proceed from the top down. If they ever get to the trenches they, do so with closed minds. “I’ve already made up my mind, please don’t confuse me with the facts!”

  • Glimmerglass

    I hope that Dean has been to Keeneland to see how racing with the customer experience can be done right: clean facilities inside and out, plenty of flat screen monitors, modern and informative in-field tote, staff that is attentive in all roles be it the beverage station or paddock guard, varied beverage and snack offerings that are cheaper than movie concessions, and well coordinated parking solutions.

    While a lengthy meet in the winter is far different in its challenges compared to a bi-annual boutique meet there is a higher standard that has to be met.

    For some tracks it almost seems as if they revel in some notion that people expect and want a track to have “character” as if it makes it endearing. Gruff people, dated facilities, sticky floors, wagering machines from the Reagan-era, and salty patrons as if they’re on shore leave. Been there and while it makes for a good story to regale non-horse friends it never is a formula for success.

    • dispute92

      I was surprised that Dean hasn’t been to Keeneland. It is a gem of a racing venue. Too bad no one is listening to them. Did you know that Santa Anita gave out beautiful free programs both days of the BC? Mmmm Naw… NY Racing will NEVER do that! Give something away?

      • You DON’T want people listening. If they do, KL will go the way of all the other failures. Once the money flows in, in obscene amounts, corruption is inevitable.

        • dispute92

          Ha… Hopefully Keeneland VIP’s are smarter than that.They do listen to fan’s requests and try to solve the problems. But… you are so right, they could just as well go in the opposite direction. I find it interesting that Keeneland has someone responding to tweets sent their way and favor them to show that they do indeed read them. Again…listening to their fan base.
          I just got back my owners info for my owners license… as I didn’t have every partner listed…blah, blah… don’t they have this all on record? Nothing has changed as far as my information and horses.. They kept my check hostage though. Anything to do with NY State in any format is always going to give one a headache.

          • You’re right. My gut instinct is that KL management IS smarter than that, and specifically, they of all the outfits would be able to resist the corruption. The key is their principled refusal to run meets longer three weeks at a time, and only two a year.

            My original statement is a sad example of the corrosiveness created by the corruption in the past (letting Rich Dutrow Jr. get away with murder forever, etc.).

            The trend, from this perspective, is problematic. Lily Tomlin put it this way: “No matter how cynical [we] get, it’s impossible to keep up.”

  • Dean, you forgot to add the part about getting mugged by the new Mayor who raised the takeout in order to fulfill his campaign pledges.

    Seriously, I’m glad you had a nice time, but I asked anyone who’s never been to a racetrack to read this and then come out to Aqueduct, that would be the last time that person would talk to me.

  • C Hogan

    I wonder if Dean or any of his friends bought any of those $10 half size racing forms.

  • 4Bellwether666

    Mr. Kay has his head in a dark hole like 90% of T-bred race track owners in America…They just don’t have a ******* clue!!!…

    • There must be a more persuasive way of saying the above.

      • 4Bellwether666

        Any way you want to say/spin it…”The Clowns” will never figure it out!!!…NEVER!!!…ty…

      • 4Bellwether666

        Wouldn’t the “True Lover’s” of “The Game” (The Horses/Jockeys always come first in my world) want to believe that “The Game” will punch on through to the other side one more time before the planet is vaporized???…”Keep the Faith Baby!!!”…

  • Bob

    This article should be required reading for Skorton, Kay and the entire NYRA management team. Charles Dickens could not have even fictionalized the astounding comparison between the beautiful “City” of the Resorts World casino, and the Mesozoic Era toilet bowl that is the remnants of the once great Big A. Perhaps the most stark distinction between the two facilities that share the old Big A grandstand is that, with literally hundreds of television screens displaying all manner of entertainment, sports, and news, there is NOT ONE monitor, in the casino, that shows the races being run no more than 100 feet outside of its doors. Moreover, the dysfunction between the two tenants of Prince Andrew’s gambling emporium, is evidenced by Resorts World’s blockage of the NYRA signal on the free Wi-Fi offered by the casino!
    One last query for Mr. Kay: It has long been reported by the NYRA that a “NEW”, State-of-the -Art, simulcasting facilty was to be finished at the Big A by the fall of 2013. Since it is now 2014, where is this “NEW” facilty? I will not be holding my breath waiting for your response.

    • “…the Mesozoic Era toilet bowl that is the remnants of the once great Big A.”

    • 4Bellwether666

      Your name will be Bob Blue before that ever happens!!!…ty…

  • jack

    This story should have been written with photos like the ones being shown on Twitter by @jbossertNYDN.

  • 4Bellwether666

    He was Kay Ohed before he took the job…Way over his pumpkin!!!…Period…

  • Grazyna Mianska

    Very well put. Spot on!

  • Larry Ensor

    I believe NYRA combined with Customer Service would be considered an Oxymoron.

    It has been this way for years. They say it’s hard to teach a old dog new tricks. And most racetracks live up to the adage. Especially the NYRA.

    I was hoping to read a “feel good” story. You know, so as to have “hope”……

  • Monk

    NYRA does not care about the fans, especially at Aqueduct, they are not going to spend one cent on the physical plant. I don’t think they really care about the fans at Belmont either.
    Regardless of what if anything they do, racing is never going to attract new, younger fans.
    There is so much more they can do with their discretionary income than go to a dirty, dank, smelly place, and drink high priced lousy drinks, and eat high priced lousy food while waiting 30 minutes between races! Does that sound like something you want to do?
    Saratoga is nice experience, I will give them that, but the reason it is because it is the time of year they conduct the meet; it is summertime and you can have a great time outside.

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