Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Chris Kay Will Be Missed: Discuss

January 30, 2019--In the wake of Chris Kay’s “resignation” from the New York Racing Association last week, an Internet poll was conducted asking: “Should extensive racing knowledge be a prerequisite for being CEO of a major racetrack or association?”

The results were not in the least bit surprising but the margin of disparity was an eye-opener: Four of every five respondents indicated that a deep knowledge of racing was needed to do the job.

Perhaps the margin shouldn’t be all that surprising and is really typical of racing’s stakeholders; breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, fans of every stripe and horseplayers big or small.

Despite the fact that about 95% of the above mostly lose money, 81% of the population believes that they have a 100% solution to an important industry issue; the game’s management.

In the poll’s comment section, a former NYRA executive--not without his share of controversy--had it right when, after some self-serving observations, noted: “In reality, it is an impossible job! How do you marry horsemen, politicians, executives, handicappers and fans?”

In New York State, the current answer is you can’t, such is the nature of politics. And recall that Governor Andrew Cuomo, who routinely turns his back on racing, recently released a budget that actually suggested divorcing horse racing from OTBs.

As with anything, there are two sides to every story. On the con side, Kay did appear to have a measure of jerk in him. He never failed to see an opportunity to promote himself but, most notably, asked company employees to do private work at his home.

I never have spoken with Kay. My first public glimpse was a press box observation of a winners’ circle ceremony at Saratoga celebrating 50 years of service to the association by lifelong racetracker Sentell “Sonny” Taylor, NYRA’s Official Timer.

Richard Migliore was the master of ceremonies and after the introduction, gave Kay the microphone which the CEO accepted without acknowledging Migliore, a moment that at best was a little cringe-worthy, at worst, rude and self-aggrandizing.

Kay spoke for about five minutes citing, in what can now be categorized as Trumpian style, all the accomplishments his administration made since the prior Saratoga race meet. Afterward, Kay presented Taylor with a gift for his long and meritorious service.

If he acknowledged Taylor by name, I never heard it. Funny how it’s the little things you notice about a man.

So there’s that and the unpopular significantly-higher prices that, in latter day corporate-speak, was meant to “enhance the guest experience.” Then you look at the other side, at what was accomplished during a tenure that began in 2013.

Kay gave subordinates the tools for growth. On his watch NYRA created horse racing’s best closed-circuit TV signal, featuring a deeper talent pool for producers to utilize. With that came many more broadcasts of NYRA racing on Fox Sports 2 into 2020.

Coupled with TV exposure came the significant growth of NYRABets into a world class ADW betting platform that stressed Mobile wagering, racing’s wave into the future.

Kay greenlighted the resurfacing of the Aqueduct main track, lending a big-time veneer to NYRA’s image-busting winter product.

The year after Kay took the helm, thanks to cost cutting and increased revenue, NYRA finished in the black for the first time in over a decade. Indeed, the NYRA has shown a profit from racing operations for all five years of his tenure.

The emergence of a couple of steeds named American Pharoah and Justify certainly didn’t hurt.

In recognition of the Triple Crown’s final leg and event oriented, the NYRA racing office created the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival weekend. The festival theme was replicated on or about Independence Day with a two-day Stars N Stripes Racing Festival, a largely turf-centric theme featuring international invitees.

Kay never got the chance to work on his vision of night racing at Belmont Park, a complete renovation of Elmont’s main track and turf courses, including the installation of a synthetic track for winter racing in anticipation of the future shuttering of Aqueduct Race Track.

Additionally, Kay had hoped to make capital improvements at Belmont in the manner of changes that is reshaping Saratoga, an accomplishment that has played to mixed reviews.

Horseplayers, like Wall Street gamblers, don’t easily embrace change, especially if it comes at an added cost, choosing instead to not look at the sports world and entertainment landscape that surrounds them. To wit:

While in no way comparing the two sports, the average pre-scalper price of a ticket to Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII ranged from $2,500 and $3,000. America’s middle class has long since been priced out of live sporting events.

By comparison, Saratoga racing, even at inflated prices, remains a bargain.

While Kay’s past as chief executive at Toys R Us has been a constant source of critical amusement, his executive time at Universal Parks and Recreation might have created the vision that helped enhance NYRA’s bottom line, his mandate when he accepted the post.

Taking shots at “Mr. Toys R Us” was the low hanging fruit of racetrack executive ridicule. Kay never was a popular CEO but he made the difficult out-of-box decisions needed to move NYRA forward. He deserves credit for that, even if he benefitted him financially.

It is true that Kay never met a photo op that he didn’t like, and made one very stupid decision that came at a very high price—his job.

Let’s see what the geniuses on the NYRA Board of Directors, and the state’s chief executive officer, has in mind going forward. It’s extremely unlikely that any new appointee will accomplish in the next five years what Kay achieved in that same time frame.

Written by John Pricci

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