It’s clear that that while President and CEO Chris Kay might not have known a great deal about Thoroughbred racing when he got the job a few short months ago, he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know and finds a way to fix a problem while getting on-the-job training simultaneously.
Under Kay’s direction, the new New York Racing Association plans to fill a newly created position of executive director of racing position this fall. NYRA already has issued a request for proposals for an executive search firm to lead the selection process and recommend potential candidates.
Considering that his time on the job dates all the way back to July 1, Kay has gotten out of the administrative starting gate with 22-44 type speed. This might not be your father’s NYRA after all.
The new executive racing director would oversee the daily racing program and advise NYRA from a racing frame of reference how to best re-brand and promote the game at its downstate properties, Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack.
One way to improve the product and create interest in what was once regarded as the industry’s clear leader: Shorten the racing season slightly by reducing the number of racing days per week and number of races carded on weekday programs.
Quality New York racing would return and field size would grow immediately. Trolling the lower classes for parimutuel fodder hoping that a gateful of lower class horses will be good for business turned out to be a temporary fix to a permanent problem; the mainstream decline of interest in Thoroughbred racing.
Other issues on Kay’s first agenda include maximizing property usage in the same manner that baseball’s Cardinals are proposing to build a “Baseball Village” to enhance the fan experience; customer surveys to help management make informed decisions on the kind of entertainment sports fans want when they enter a racetrack.
In short, Kay wants to know who his customers are, what they like and don’t like, why they came and why they might or might not return. “We need to understand who our customers are and why.” First it must make sense financially.
Horse of the Year? Who Cares?
If there’s a good thing to acknowledge about polls, it’s that the consensus of opinions provide a snapshot to those who may be interested in the pecking order of things, but do not have the time necessary to follow a given situation in earnest.
Consider the NTRA Poll for Top Thoroughbred. A pair of six-year-old geldings have won all four of their 2013 starts. They are thisclose to each other in the voting for first place but tower over the remaining American Thoroughbreds in captivity.
The top point setter is Wise Dan, an emphatic winner of the Grade 2 Fourstardave at one mile on the grass under a steadying 129 pounds, spotting 11 pounds to a sharp, loose-leading and still developing New York-bred rival, King Kreesa. It was an excellent performance.
The effort was so good, in fact, that I reversed my exacta from the previous week, placing him in front of Game On Dude instead of the other way around. I did it grudgingly because of the nature of the accomplishment but couldn’t in good conscience deny its worthiness.
However, if last week’s poll were to be the one determining my preference for Horse of the Year 2013 it likely would go a a horse that distinguished itself on dirt over a distance of ground or a turf runner that was more accomplished a traditional route distances.
Last week in the Racing Post, noted turf writer Sam Walker had some unkind things to say about the campaign being waged by owner Morton Fink, the decider, and trainer Charlie LoPresti, the adviser. This is, of course, the natural order of things.
Much of what Walker wrote was accurate in our view. Unfortunately, much of it came across as arrogant and mean spirited. Not that I find anything wrong with a little well-placed elitism, but a modicum of temperance is always appreciated, albeit dated these days.
“U.S. turf racing is second tier,” wrote Walker. “It doesn't take a great horse to excel in that division and the situation is nothing like being the best miler in Europe, or the best sprinter in Australia - positions which carry global significance.
“Turf horses in the U.S. have their own separate categories at the Eclipse Awards because they are a side dish. Dirt horses don't require separate awards because dirt is the main course. It's the surface everyone wants to win on; the surface they were all bred for.
“Being the best turf horse in America is like being the best harness, quarter horse or show pony. It's commendable but largely irrelevant in racing circles unless you also happen to be top class on dirt.” Not sure why Walker had to disparage harness racing or quarter horses to make his point.
But a show pony? A little cheeky, eh mate?
Walker did give Wise Dan his due, saying that he is top class on turf, dirt and synthetics. “And that is exactly what he built his reputation on. Not simply by being the best horse on the U.S. turf, but by being the most versatile.”
That’s the part of Wise Dan’s talent that Fink either doesn’t appreciate or chooses to ignore. And while Walker was not temperate in some of the things he wrote, it wasn’t as if Fink and LoPresti were respectful in consideration of Eclipse tradition.
“I don’t care at all [about Horse of the Year],” said Fink the morning after the Fourstardave. “I could care less about Horse of the Year,” said LoPresti. In its way, that’s almost as disparaging as comparisons to quarter horses and show ponies.
The possibility remains that Wise Dan is the best horse in America on any surface. In fact, he has run faster performances figures in a synthetic track and his best race last year came in a losing effort on dirt—a narrow, tough-trip, weight-spotting run in the G1 Stephen Foster.
Walker makes the point properly that it is Wise Dan’s versatility that sets him apart and that this should be featured in his campaign. It’s what Wise Dan’s fans and critics are longing to see.
Instead, it will be the path of least resistance, not the road that leads to the kind of immortality reserved for sporting owners who sought challenges and not the safety of specialty racing.
Some have argued that Wise Dan is a Horse of the Year by default because a lack of domination elsewhere. But 2012 started with three top-class performances on three disparate surfaces. Versatility is Wise Dan’s milieu; it helped kame him a star.
But the 2013 campaign lacks versatility of any kind. Not only are the future targets softer and more familiar, but those challenges will come at scale-weights.
Wise Dan could still make history, of course: There hasn’t been a walkover since Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Woodward, which could have been a target had Fink placed his horse in historical context, not the softest spot.
"We've got so many honors, it's unbelievable,” said Fink last weekend. “All we care about is do the right thing for the horse. We're not trying to make it harder and harder on him. What does he have to prove?”
That will be for history to decide, not the bottom line.