Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

New Spots on the Leopard

(INUVIK, NWT, CANADA – June 19, 2011) No sooner had Ruler On Ice crossed the Belmont Stakes finish line that the new New York Racing Association began planning for Saratoga. An announcement regarding how to apply for media credentials was issued tout suite and an invitation for a pre-season press conference at The Desmond in Albany to hear what the brass had to promise for the upcoming season was emailed to appropriate parties.

Although these events occur annually, you will notice the word “new” that describes NYRA. The use of that word was purposeful, of course, because, for the first time in several years, the nation’s number one horse racing franchise is acting the part of a leader.

An enormous percentage of all monies wagered are wagered on NYRA’s races. NYRA’s tracks host the most graded stakes, offer the country’s highest prizes and feature many of the sport’s greatest stars. As a verse to a popular song goes, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Yet, looking back at the past several years, effort has not caused performance, so the change in behavior is welcome.
Among fans, NYRA has long had a reputation for arrogance. When Charles Hayward, a bona fide fan, was appointed president, there was hope that he’d work to improve matters between the racetracks’ management and the public. You can decide for yourself, if he’s done that. But give him his props anyway for some things that have happened lately.

Following New York City’s OTB demise in the winter, NYRA operatives have stood up to the plate and shown gumption. Instead of crying out loud that they’re treated unfairly, which they often are, they began acting responsibly. They saw attendance and handle grow in response to meaningful steps they took to gain back the losses they felt when the shops closed. More importantly, they stopped saying that they were a business that couldn’t survive without help from outsiders.

The way NYRA has recently behaved is startling to many. The franchise has rarely taken to proactive measures except for seeking the assistance of others. With its problems behind, there’s a good chance that 2011 will be the start of a new golden era. At least, it is looking that way. Past won’t be prologue this time.

Last July, despite Hayward’s denial that business would be adversely affected by negative publicity, attendance and handle at Saratoga decreased in accordance with a decade-long trend. Three months before the track opened, Hayward warned people that horse racing might not take place at the Spa unless the State would come through on its promise to bankroll the franchise while the Aqueduct casino was being built. In return, fans made other summer plans, causing hotels and motels to panic.

In addition, New York Thoroughbred Breeders chipped in with their own ill-advised moaning. They added coal to the fire by saying that a cessation of the sport in the Empire State was imminent. The actions of both organizations were in no sense a good way to build enthusiasm. Well, you know the rest of the story.

Business at Saratoga declined. There were Thursday and Mondays when there weren’t 10,000 fans in the seats, even though there were more reported. In fact, business has declined in all but two of the last 10 summers. This year would be a good time to end that string. Count on PJ Campo to write races that lure big, bettable fields. Hope the weather stays sunny and cool. But, by all obvious signs, the track is at least several more years away of accomplishing a true revival.

Two weeks ago, Hayward told Ray Paulick of the that designs are all but complete for a new permanent structure to rise on the clubhouse turn replacing the temporary At the Rail Pavilion. The proposed building is intended to serve those fans that want air-conditioning and favor more modern amenities. The price of construction will be high and it’ll take two years to build. In true “cover your behind” fashion, the association has hired experts from out of town to help with decisions. Nevertheless, a common refrain is “if you build it, they will come,” and that’s what everyone’s counting on.

Throughout the Triple Crown season, horse racing has proved that putting on a good show is all that it takes to make friends. Although there is little to sell in the way of charismatic horses now that it’s over, Saratoga’s festivities offer a similar stimulus. The historic racecourse’s charms are unrivaled and the meet’s 40 days, while not 24 or 30 or 36, still constitute to some extent a “get it while you can because later you can’t” energy.

In the end, corporations are still a lot like leopards – they never change their spots. Everyday operatives learn quickly that if they want to advance in the ranks, they must act like their bosses do. By and large, NYRA’s middle management operates in the manner it does because that’s what’s expected of them. The guy on the bottom looks up to the guy above him who looks up at the guy above him and so on. Yet, there are signs that seem to indicate change in the Empire State.

NYRA wants the Breeders Cup back at Belmont Park, for example, and won’t rest until it has its own OTB operation. In the meantime, laying low with the complaining has helped matters. Having said that, don’t expect many decisions at NYRA to be made for the sake of the fans, if they cause discomfort with horse owners. The franchise became horse racing’s epitome by offering Big Apple-inflated purses, writing stakes for the best horses and making rich folks feel welcome.

Funny how effectively that’s worked, as a matter of fact. Let the party begin.

Vic Zast has filed this column from Inuvik, nearly 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He completed a drive by RV in 16 days to get there for golf at midnight on the longest day, which is today. Learn more at

Written by Vic Zast

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