By Vic Zast
CHICAGO, IL, June 28, 2013--The media is giving a pass to the back story affecting the Christopher Kay hiring as new CEO for the New York Racing Association. Kay’s appointment should be receiving more than a few simple questions about his qualifications vis-à-vis no background in horse racing circles. His unusual ascendency as a man with excellent credentials in Grade II and III business situations to the Grade I CEO post left vacant by Charles Hayward 15 months ago, when the former publishing executive and Senior Vice President and General Counsel Peter Kehoe took the fall for an $8.6 million takeout swindle, has been little analyzed in terms of why it’s a good development or, more precisely, why it happened.
For the most part, the writers and core fans of the sport are giving Kay’s appointment the five-fingered salute, saying that they’re open to giving the man a chance while noting how ill-prepared he is for the assignment. Nobody is saying that Kay, in becoming NYRA’s CEO, may be the only racecourse manager the sport has who could get a job as a chief operator at Toys R Us and The Trust for Public Land. In any case, the cautionary opinions are coming from people who have never hired an executive search firm or hired an executive themselves – in other words, a place of misplaced authority.
An Eclipse Award-winning turf writer wrote at ESPN.com, “The future of racing in New York is in the hands of a group overwhelmingly without background in an industry with a long, long learning curve” revealing that he, like the establishment, believes there is something holy about the turf which mere mortals who haven’t tread there can’t fathom. The writer, like many of his contemporaries, misses the point that the State might be fed up with the franchise’s prior arrogance and doesn’t want to deal with a blind-eyed re-tread who can’t operate outside a walking ring.
There’s a franchise to sell. Instead of complaining that NYRA won’t be getting a dose of the same-old, the media should ask questions of NYRA Board Chairmen David Skorton, a college president similarly challenged in horse racing knowledge as the man that he hired, which answer how Kay’s appointment was impacted by New York’s publicly-stated decision to replace NYRA with a private operator in three years.
It appears Skorton selected the 60-year-old Kay for short-term and non-racing reasons. Skorton revealed little to The Blood-Horse about the directions he gave the search firm. But the magazine reported that he said, “A lot of problems NYRA has experienced have not been because of racing savvy, but because of government savvy.”
The search firm’s recommendation and Skorton’s ultimate choice broke new ground in the sport, which has routinely hired from within. Having the right friends and merely existing as an industry operative, regardless of record, seems to be enough ordinarily for a job candidate to land a horse racing job. There’s been industry hiring from without, but the rare people who have come into horse racing from other industries have been – at least until now - for the most part, like NFL players who land up in Buffalo – the stars choose New York, Dallas or Miami.
A closed network has led to bloated salaries, lax performance requirements and stale thinking. Skorton didn’t want any of this. Earlier this spring, when compensation guidelines more in line with what the post deserves instead of what most racecourse executives are paid were revealed, critics howled. A few observers deduced that Kay’s selection resulted from the coincidence that he was the only person who would work inexpensively.
Understanding who the other candidates besides Kay were would tell us more about what to expect from Kay than a few myopic opinions. Were women considered? Was Kay the first choice; Hayward wasn’t – he was the third. While the game has allowed salaries to rise disproportionately to their value at many racetracks, there are many young, talented general managers and general managers-to-come who were affordable and who would serve well, had that indeed been the option Skorton wanted.
Here’s the telling point now. If fans and observers could learn what makes Kay’s two-tiered compensation package soar beyond his reported $300,000 base annual salary, they’d know what to look for down the road. Some enterprising investigative journalist should dig for this. On the other hand, horse racing writers who venture too far from their primary beat haven’t distinguished themselves. Those who have, have become targets of scorn - guys who don’t promote the sport it’s said, which, of course, has nothing to do with their job anyway.
If Kay’s reported $250,000 bonus opportunity is based mainly on profitability, headcount will tumble, departments will shrink, dates will be cut, horsemen will incur costs that they’ve been allowed to avoid and there will be more workers in their offices during the races than watching and betting on them. Is it a foregone conclusion that NYRA will hire another high-priced VP to direct the staff that’s been working so effectively for the past 15 months?
If the bonus is tied to attendance, expect a marketing overhaul. One definition of crazy is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result – that’s what is currently happening.
If the bonus provides standards connected to maximize an end result when time rolls around to get Frank Stronach or Churchill Downs to step in – watch how quickly the tracks get a facelift.
Skorton and Kay may not be at NYRA to do Cuomo’s bidding. But they aren’t going to do anything to contradict the reasons why the Governor rode roughshod on the status quo in order to satisfy an agenda. Their involvement in New York horse racing will mean peaceful co-existence with casino forces, safety measures such as a synthetic racing or training surface and new drug guidelines to avoid the routine slaughter of ill-suited racers as happened a couple Januarys ago, renewed interest with the public, which has been battered and bruised by who-struck-John charges and “Oh, my, the sky is falling” claims for the past dozen years and, perhaps, even the selling of Aqueduct to real estate developers to fill the State’s stomach with pork.
What specifically happens next is more interesting than just what happened and, given the right seer, can be seen in the tea leaves. But a business mystic, who understands the causes and effects of personnel issues better than horse racing fans and turf writers who are outside the human resources realm, must find out whether the brew is Earl Grey or Chamomile. Otherwise, all the talk is just talk, being spoken by people who should listen.
Vic Zast wrote a Monday morning column for horseraceinsider.com for four years, ending his run as a regular contributor in 2011. You can peruse the archives to read previous columns by him or follow him at bloodhorse.com beginning July 19 with his Saratoga Diary.