05/28/2014 2:48PM

NYRA hoping Belmont Day kickstarts spring rebound


It was a rough winter for the New York Racing Association in terms of business and perception, but upper management is hoping for a turnaround this spring, buoyed by the possibility of having one of its biggest days ever in the June 7 Belmont Stakes.

At a meeting of its Reorganization Board of Directors in Manhattan on Wednesday, NYRA reported it had a loss of $10.2 million from racing operations through the first quarter of 2014, an increase of $1.7 million, or 19 percent, compared to last year and $1.8 million, or 21 percent higher than expected. NYRA officials mostly blamed the weather for its woes, noting that it endured seven weather-related cancellations during Aqueduct’s inner-track meet.

However, handle for that period of time was $412.3 million, an increase of $5.5 million, or 1 percent, compared to the first quarter of 2013. Aqueduct conducted three more racing days through the first quarter of 2014 than the same period last year.

When revenue from video-lottery terminals at Resorts World is factored in, the picture for NYRA looks better as its net loss for the quarter was only $1.2 million.

NYRA blamed a deal between Churchill Downs Inc. and Delaware North that enables CDI to avoid paying the state – and in turn NYRA, horsemen, and breeders – an out-of-state source market fee that was enacted legislatively beginning Jan. 1, 2013. NYRA estimates that deal has cost it, the horsemen, and breeders a total of $1.5 million.

NYRA is seeking some help from the New York Gaming Commission to revisit the rules that permit CDI to do this, but there is no timetable for a resolution to the issue.

“We’re losing money,” said Rick Violette, a trainer and a board member. “The clock’s ticking.”

NYRA also had perception problems with Aqueduct being described by one of its board members, Len Riggio, in March as “dirty and dangerous,” and there was an unfortunate incident when a woman was assaulted in a restroom on Super Bowl Sunday.

Susanne Stover, NYRA’s chief financial officer, provided a slide show of improvements made at Aqueduct that included a new simulcast area, called Longshots. Future improvements are planned for the Manhattan Terrace and Champs Sports Bar.

It is widely assumed that the Reorganization Board will recommend closing Aqueduct and finding an alternate use of the property when it presents a report to Gov. Cuomo next year. After the meeting, NYRA president and CEO Chris Kay said nothing has been proposed for an alternative use of Aqueduct.

“People say you should cut a deal,” Kay said. “Well, what are the terms? You need to find out what the terms are and find out if it’s a good deal or not. In the meantime, to the extent that some people thought Aqueduct had some issues, well we were trying to show you Aqueduct is a much cleaner place. Until I know for sure that we have an alternative, I want to make sure that this place is in good shape.

Wednesday’s meeting focused a lot on the Belmont Stakes, where California Chrome will bid to become the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner on a card that will include 13 races, including 10 stakes and $8 million in purses.

All traditional and upscale seating is sold out, though Kay said there will be a pavilion on the clubhouse side that will have a 230-person capacity with seating priced at $1,000 per ticket.

Kay also said that NYRA will be adding 1,000 bleacher seats in upper stretch – adjacent to the picnic area – which will cost $250 per seat.

Kay added that he and his staff are monitoring ticket sales and said that general admission may not be available for purchase the day of the race. Kay had not yet defined what number he and his staff feel is the cut-off point for sales.

The record crowd for a Belmont Stakes is 120,139. Kay said he is not looking to cram as many people into Belmont as possible.

“I’m more committed to people having a great time than breaking a record for attendance, particularly since some of the attendance records from the past, I’m not sure how reliable they are,” Kay said.

Kay said NYRA is hiring 1,000 additional personnel to join the current 1,000-person workforce to deal with the crowd.

In other news:

◗ Chairman David Skorton, who will become head of the Smithsonian Institute in June 2015, said he is committed to staying in his role until at least the end of 2014. As the president of Cornell University, Skorton said he will be busy with the college’s sesquicentennial starting in July, but added: “I’m committed to [NYRA]. Committed especially to getting the organization to the point where we can discuss re-privatization. The main thing I want people to know is I’m not walking away.”

◗ Jane Rosenthal, an appointee to the board by Gov. Cuomo, resigned from the board for various undisclosed reasons. Skorton said an announcement on her replacement could come “within a week.”