01/25/2013 7:37PM

NYRA board looking for shorter winter race week, new top executive

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NEW YORK – The New York Racing Association Reorganization Board lived up to its name Friday, agreeing to apply for a shorter racing schedule at Aqueduct for the winter while accepting the resignation of current NYRA president Ellen McClain and announcing the formation of a committee to select her replacement.

All of this as well as some lively debate between board members Bobby Flay and Rick Violette regarding the quality of racing at Aqueduct took place during a 2 1/2-hour meeting of the NYRA board Friday afternoon in midtown Manhattan.

With a shortage of horses from which to pull from – field size is down to 6.9 horses per race from 7.9 last winter – and the publicity over five fatal breakdowns in the first 25 days of Aqueduct’s inner-track meeting, the NYRA board agreed to authorize a four-day race week to replace its current five-day week. It was unclear when the four-day week would begin, but it is likely to start the first week of February.

“We’re putting safety ahead of finance,” said NYRA board member Anthony Bonomo, who chairs the board’s safety committee, which proposed the change.

In order to go to a shorter week, NYRA has to get current legislation changed that requires it to schedule 95 cards from Dec. 1 through May 1. This year, there were 97 cards scheduled during that time period.

P.J. Campo, NYRA’s racing secretary, welcomed the flexibility to go to four days a week, citing the fact there are only 1,700 horses stabled between Aqueduct and Belmont. Further, he said that shippers from the Mid-Atlantic region to New York are down 75 percent since NYRA implemented new medication rules, especially tougher restrictions regarding the administration of clenbuterol.

“I think it’s the right decision, I think four days is adequate,” said Campo, noting that tracks such as Santa Anita, Laurel, and Parx run four days a week, while Turfway Park and Penn National run three days a week.

Campo said by going to four days a week it will not be necessary to reduce the number of races run per day from nine. In fact, Campo said Aqueduct would start running 10 races each Saturday with the Feb. 2 card.

Campo said he would sit down with McClain and Rick Violette, the head of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, to discuss the schedule.

Though McClain announced her resignation as NYRA president and COO at the meeting, she will stay on until the end of March or April to assist in the transition.

NYRA chair David Skorton, who thanked McClain for her service, formally announced a search committee to find a new president and CEO for NYRA. NYRA has been without a president since Charles Hayward was fired in May after it was learned that NYRA was overcharging its bettors by 1 percent in takeout for certain wagers.

Skorton will chair a committee that includes members Bobby Flay, Jane Rosenthal, Stuart Janney, and Earl Mack.

Skorton would not identify a timetable for when a new president and CEO would be hired, but said that some work has already been done, “including categories of people that should be looked at.”

Speaking of Hayward, it was revealed at the board meeting that he is owed $460,000 in compensation and $144,000 in attorney’s fees. At the meeting, however, NYRA agreed not to pay that money until a report of the takeout issue from the state’s Inspector General is released. It was also announced that Pat Kehoe, NYRA’s counsel who was fired in May, is due $413,000 in severance as well as $55,800 in attorney’s fees. His payment was also deferred.

Though NYRA will have a shorter race week, talk about replacing the inner track with a synthetic surface barely got off the ground.

“We decided not to pursue, at least right now, changing the surface on the inner track at Aqueduct,” Skorton said after the meeting. “That shows that this board is responsive to input including from the media and from the public.”

The board also has members who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

Flay, the celebrity chef and a Thoroughbred owner, citing the poor quality of racing at Aqueduct in the winter, said, “If it was up to me we wouldn’t race in the winter at Aqueduct.”

That met with consternation from Violette, who is not a voting board member, and Barry Ostrager, a New York breeder and owner.

“Even you realize not everybody can eat steak and lobster year-round – you got 11 hamburger joints,” Violette said. “We are not in the trash heap. We have a good product that we need to move forward.”

Said Ostrager: “Get away from the sound bites and be a little practical.”

Later in the meeting, Flay said that he feels his role on the board is coming up with ideas to improve the ontrack racing experience for customers.

“If you guys don’t want to do that, you don’t need me here,” Flay said. “I’m here to help create the experience, the experience I know people want. It’s infectious. When I take people to racetrack they’re hooked.”

Flay also mentioned the possibility of putting high-end restaurants as well as retail shops at Belmont Park, akin to those in place at Gulfstream Park in south Florida.

NYRA does plan on enhancing its product for all of its customers by announcing it will be purchasing 13 high-definition cameras.

NYRA’s budget also includes putting in Trakus at its three tracks later this year.