Updated on 06/19/2013 2:55PM

Christopher Kay named as NYRA CEO, president

Christopher Kay is the first permanent president and CEO at NYRA since May 2012.

NEW YORK – As a teenager, he visited Cahokia Downs in Alorton, Ill. As an attorney, he represented stables in South Carolina and Kentucky and once declined an offer to be a minority horse owner.

As far as racing experience goes, that’s about it for Christopher Kay.

But his background as an attorney and business executive dealing in complex issues such as land privatization was enough to convince the New York Racing Association board of directors to hire Kay, 60, as the company’s new president and CEO effective July 1.

Kay becomes the first permanent president and CEO at NYRA since Charles Hayward was fired in May 2012 as the result of a takeout scandal, in which NYRA overcharged its bettors for a 15-month period. Ellen McClain, the chief financial officer during the takeout issue, had served as interim president and CEO before resigning in April.

Kay was chosen from a pool of more than 100 prospects that were interviewed by RSR Partners, an executive search firm retained by the NYRA to assist in the search that began in February. Of that group, only 28 were racing executives, according to John Keitt, managing director of that firm. Keitt said the racing executives he interviewed did not have “the requisite skills” to handle the complexity of the NYRA job.

NYRA chairman David Skorton, who chaired the search committee that included board members Bobby Flay, Jane Rosenthal, Stuart Janney III, and Earle Mack, called Kay “a dream candidate” because “he not only cares about horse racing” but also is “a very strong manager and leader of different types of organizations.”

His lack of experience in Thoroughbred racing was not viewed as a negative by the board.

“I don’t think the racing experience is the most important thing in this regard,” Flay said after the meeting. “I think Chris Kay is incredibly well-rounded as a business person and somebody who understands management, how to motivate people, and understands there are lots of issues at NYRA that need to get cleared up, and I think he’s up to the task. Getting him comfortable with the racing product is going to be the easiest part of this. Eventually, he’ll put in people that can help in that department.”

Asked if he would hire a chief operating officer to run the day-to-day racing operations at NYRA, Kay said, “It’s going to be one of the first things I look at.”

Said Skorton: “A lot of the problems that NYRA has experienced in the past has not been because of a lack of racing savvy, it’s because of lack of governance savvy.”

Kay, who held executive positions with Toys “R” Us and Universal Parks and Resorts, most recently worked as the chief operating officer for Trust for Public Land, a non-profit organization that has closed thousands of land projects throughout the country for development of parks and the preservation of historic lands and landmarks. He left that position in February.

One of the primary issues facing the NYRA board – whose job is to have NYRA ready for re-privatization in fall 2015 – is to determine the future of Aqueduct. NYRA conducts live racing at Aqueduct six months out of the year. It shares the property with Resorts World New York, a highly successful video-lottery terminal casino with which NYRA has, over some issues, a contentious relationship.

Some have speculated that Aqueduct could close for live racing, consolidating that activity at Belmont Park, though a complete – and extremely costly – renovation of Belmont would likely be necessary to conduct racing there on a 10-month basis.

“David and the committee have said it’s one of the things we should look at,” Kay said.

Asked why he was interested in coming to NYRA, Kay said, “Number one, it’s a challenge and it’s an opportunity to do better. Those are two very important things to me. This is a world-class board and the opportunity to work with them to create a new solution is very attractive. I want to learn from the mistakes of the past, but there is so much talent around that table we can create a future for decades to come for success in horse racing and that was a very compelling reason for me to express interest in this job.”

Kay said in meeting with the board, he was advised of a three-year plan that he would attempt to execute that includes enhancing “the guest experience for people who are racing fans and recruit others to become racing fans,” get the company ready for re-privatization in fall 2015, and “improve the quality of racing and the purses at every racetrack we own and operate.”

Kay, who resides in Purchase, N.Y., said he would be leaving on Thursday for Lexington, Ky., to learn more about the Thoroughbred industry.

“I’m going to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can in every venue I can,” Kay said. “Part of the education process.”

Kay will make $300,000 as a base salary, with unspecified performance-based incentives that add up to additional $250,000 in bonuses.

“We have a balanced scorecard that we’ve developed,” Skorton said. “If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s a way to assess performance based on some quantitative metrics, like finances and things like that, there’s also qualitative metrics. I want to be very public about this: This is not a guaranteed extra $250,000. We made that very clear to Chris during the recruitment process. This is going to be performance-based, and I’m a hard grader.”