06/15/2013 2:04PM

NYRA hearing turned on ear by union members

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ELMONT, N.Y. – A public hearing at Belmont Park on Saturday morning turned rowdy and raucous when union members, unhappy with the pace of contract negotiations, shouted down members of the New York Racing Association’s management team.

The forum, moderated by NYRA television analyst Andy Serling, was an opportunity for racing fans to open a dialogue with the operators of Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga. A crowd of more than 100 packed the Trustees’ Room on the second floor of the clubhouse.

At the start, Serling outlined four topics for discussion: the racing product, wagering, customer service, and marketing. Most of the questions during the two-hour session stuck to the format, but about 30 minutes in, the tone turned hostile.

It started with an accusation that NYRA had commissioned a $1 million mural while some employees struggle to survive.

“I am not aware of a million-dollar mural,” Vice President of Corporate Development David O’Rourke said. “There is a $250,000 mural. The employees are what make NYRA run. We couldn’t put on a show without them. They are essential to the fabric of this company. We also value the collective-bargaining process. We would love to have this discussion at the negotiating table.”

Serling struggled at that point to regain control of the proceedings by recognizing audience members with questions related to the four outlined topics. Every effort to shift the direction that way was shouted and hooted down.

“These are important questions, and we want to hear your answers,” said Julia Ryback, an official with the union representing the cleaners, program sellers, and security officers. “You represent this company, and you’re having a public forum, and your employees are on food stamps. This is the space you are providing, and these are the questions we wanted answered: why you don’t give your employees raises; why have taxpayers like me had to bail you guys out while you give NYRA executives raises?”

After about 30 minutes of shouting, the union members stormed out, and the forum continued.

The rest of the meeting covered a wide range of issues, including: the need for NYRA to expand its marketing efforts, customer-service problems on Belmont Stakes Day, concerns over the possible development of land parcels at Belmont for non-racing ventures, and the longstanding policy of charging for admission and programs.

One of the more interesting suggestions from the floor was the use of a split screen for NYRA’s telecasts. One fan suggested the single-pan camera for the stretch run becomes a problem when a winner draws clear by a wide margin. Bettors who play exactas, trifectas, and superfectas hold their breath, waiting for the next three finishers to pop onto the screen.

“This is something we need more feedback on,” Serling said. “There is a great deal of merit to what you suggest, but we need to have a discussion.”

O’Rourke said part of the solution will come this fall, when NYRA adds Trakus, the electronic system that instantly updates the running order.

◗ The Saratoga races will be shown live by Capital District Off-Track Betting’s television network for the first time later this summer, NYRA announced this week during a meeting of the NYRA Franchise Oversight Board. Previously, the races were shown there on a delayed basis.