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Thursday, June 20, 2013


Fools ‘R’ Them?


As you know, I’m more court jester than Voltaire, but something struck me as odd with the naming of the new NYRA CEO, Christopher Kay.

Let’s cut right to the chase and hear what Bobby Flay, barbeque savant and restaurateur, said in his statement following the hiring, “Though he has had no direct involvement with thoroughbred racing, Chris is familiar with the sport … ”

Okay, I’m going to cut you off right there. I’m familiar with cooking a steak medium rare over an open flame, but are you going to hire me to be the next executive chef at Mesa Grill?

Kay has the type of resume you’d gladly change your identity and try to emulate, ala Bob Benson. Kay was the Chief Operating Officer for The Trust for Public Land, a consultant to Universal Parks & Resorts and COO for Toys ’R’ Us.

With that sparkling Duke University law degree it was easy to overlook his lack of panache in the Sport of Kings. At least he can claim that the mascot for Toys ’R’ Us has hooves, albeit a 20-foot tall giraffe named Geoffrey.

Looking at the photograph of Kay, he has a Mona Lisa smile, a moderate stoop of a man who likely spent years at a desk, gray hair along the sideburns indicating moderate stress and possibly a weak spot for pina coladas and artisan breads.

NYRA’s last president—Ellen McClain—had an Ivy League-pedigree, but no horse racing bloodlines. Prior to her was the firing of Charlie Hayward, whose black eye was the exotic takeout scandal that robbed horse players of $8.6 million over a 15-month stretch. Hey, given how much Hayward played the races, at least some of his scratch was in that $8.6 million pool. He’s one of us!

The NYRA CEO position seems to be every bit like the Defense Against the Dark Arts position at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The faculty simply could never find a steady, mentally balanced, non-werewolf to train its young protégés how to deftly defy Death Eaters and the rise of Lord Voldemort. When you think about it, it’s exactly the same with horse racing New York.

Kay’s experience with horse racing is sobering, to put it mildly. Take this quote from Kay:

“I also developed a relationship with a friend of mine who owned a couple of horses, actually several very good ones – Don Dizney – who was suggesting I become the minority owner in some of those horses, like Wekiva Springs. I instead chose to go the baseball route, hoping we would land a major league team [in Orlando, Fl.] with a minor league team. But I have enjoyed the racing experience for decades.”

Now, imagine a job interview for a mechanic where you are asked, oh, I don’t know, what experience do you have repairing an automobile?

“I once went to a high school where a friend of mine took shop and I opted for 19th century English Literature, but I respect the work he does and wouldn’t take my car anywhere else.”

“I like the cut of your jib, young man, when can you start?”

Where’s Phil Jackson when you need him?

The only reason a hire like this takes place is because NYRA knows horse racing really isn’t the issue. All they do is run in circles every 30 minutes or so. What really matters is getting people through the gates and making them feel special, making them pull that arm, baby, ting-a-ling.

Once upon a time, when I worked for the Dark Lord at a newspaper-that-shall-not-be-named, I received a letter from a concerned racetrack patron, Malcolm Deady, on September 12, 2008. I’m currently looking for it. It’s 11:41 AM on Wednesday. Give me a second.



Found it, 12:51 PM, Wednesday.

Dear Brendan,

… Now, I’d like to add my own comments gleaned from the 36-day meet. None of these will find their way to NYRA and I do regret the implied cynicism of a cross-section of serious attendees would probably agree with most of my observations.

Let’s start with Customer Service. The poorest CS and the slowest lines in the Clubhouse are at the second floor VOUCHER WINDOW near the Carousel. How do you select the clerk for this window? Are the trained in tardiness and attitude? I mean, it’s a Voucher Window — how many alternatives (voucher or NYRA Card) can there be? Also, why are the clerks building yet on more than one occasion, attendees in the Grandstand and Clubhouse bring coolers that do not fit under their eats, blocking the aisles. Plus, you have the Clubhouse dummies who leave their coolers and Saratoga cooler bags behind Aisle (1); the latter leak and the water drains into the aisles. You allow patrons under 18 to bet and to use the vouchers, slowing down the lines for the real bettors; you allow little kids to be unsupervised in the Clubhouse boxes, playing all day with the chains; the only times their parents get involved with the kids is when a race is running and the parents stand up so that the patrons are further distracted. Why are there numbers delays in posting routine payoffs? (No dead heats or other unusually situations). Plus, the race is declared “Official” and the previous race odds are still displayed. In the paddock, why can’t the grooms wear the horses’ number on their front as well as their back? Why not a symbol to designate a horse that is being schooled in the paddock? For 35 days, anyone could get a table at the Carousel on the second floor—on Travers Day, there was a sign informing of a $16.00 seating charge. There is a term for that on the ‘street’. The ‘tote’ boards cannot handle seven-figure payoffs. The base of the Sea Hero statue needs some maintenance. On Travers Day, the woman sitting next to me (whom I had never seen even though I had sat in my same seat every day from July 23) asked me ‘where she could buy one of those little books [The Post Parade]).

Otherwise, it was a wonderful 36 days. Can’t wait for next year.


So, it appears, Kay has his work cut out for him. This is his first Saratoga and one of his first agendas is to “enhance the guest experience for our racing fans and to recruit others to become new racing fans,” said Kay.

It’s a tall order that, some may say, has never been successful, not at a NYRA track, not at any track. Will he be any different? We have to hope so, no?

Twitter: @BrendanOMeara


Written by Brendan O'Meara

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