07/18/2012 5:26PM

Saratoga: Despite takeover, new NYRA boss McClain gears up

Barbara D. Livingston
NYRA president and COO Ellen McClain's goals for the Saratoga meet are an increase in field size and average daily handle.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – As Gov. Andrew Cuomo puts the finishing touches on a state takeover of the New York Racing Association, a poised Ellen McClain is gearing up for what she believes will be a successful Saratoga meet, her first – and some suggest last – as the organization’s president and chief operating officer.

Two days before Friday’s opening of Saratoga’s 144th meet – a 40-day meet that runs through Labor Day – McClain spoke about the upcoming Saratoga meet and her future in the wake of a published report that stated she will be fired in seven weeks.

McClain, 48, NYRA’s former chief financial officer, is now the president and chief operating officer after Charles Hayward was fired as president and CEO in the wake of a takeout scandal in which NYRA wrongfully withheld approximately $8.5 million in wagers over a 15-month period. That led to Gov. Cuomo ordering a restructuring of the NYRA board of directors that is expected to take place following the Saratoga meet and basically amounts to a takeover of NYRA that will last a minimum of three years. What this means for NYRA’s future – and McClain’s – is something that will hang over this meet.

“Clearly this has been an unprecedented disruption, but our management team has really kept their heads down because we had to,” McClain said Wednesday. “We handle this $2 billion operation. We didn’t stop racing. We didn’t stop wagering. You just have to produce every day and that’s what we’ve done and I think with great results.

“In terms of this meet, the horsemen are supporting our program and we’re thrilled by that support.”

A published report in Monday’s New York Post quoted an anonymous source saying McClain would be fired at the end of the meet.

“That factually incorrect, irresponsible statement should never have been made,” McClain said. “It serves no purpose for New York racing.”

[Complete coverage of racing at Saratoga: News, PPs, and video]

Rather than a tumultuous period, this was supposed to be a time of rejuvenation for New York racing. With money coming in from the racino at Aqueduct, purses for the upcoming Saratoga meet have skyrocketed to a record average of $930,000, a 39 percent increase over last year.

“There’s no question you wish you didn’t have all this other stuff going on,” said trainer Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Will the detractors continue to try to tear us apart? Yeah. There’s no controlling that. It’s still going to be a spectacular meet.

“There’s no denying that purse level attracts the best racing,” Violette added. “That’s been questioned by some, but it’s beyond question that significant purses attracts significant quality and it’ll be on display.”

There are pretty high expectations at Saratoga, a meet that in 2011 had an average daily handle of $13.4 million. Average field size last year was 8.2 horses per race.

“The two kind of fundamental objectives are a half-a-horse on average increase in field size and a mid-single digit increase in daily average handle,” McClain said.

Both objectives could be made harder to achieve as a result of an experiment that will limit field size in 2-year-old maiden dirt sprints to eight. A maiden filly race on Friday’s opening-day card was split into two divisions of eight horses each while the two stakes have fields of seven. Saturday, there were only 13 horses entered for a maiden 2-year-old event, leaving a field of eight and five on the also-eligible list.

A terrific forecast could help Saratoga get off to a great start. In recent years, rain and heat have plagued Saratoga’s opening day. Friday’s forecast calls for temperatures in the low 80s and just a 10 percent chance of rain.

The purses have lured many of the top horsemen to Saratoga for the summer, some – like Wayne Catalano, Nick Canani, and Josie Carroll – for the first time.

The jockey colony will be the deepest it has ever been as 10 of the top 12 money-leading riders will be here. Rosie Napravnik, Joel Rosario, and Junior Alvarado will be riding here for the first time, joining New York regulars Ramon Dominguez, Javier Castellano, and defending two-time leading rider John Velazquez, who is targeting next Wednesday for his return. Velazquez has been sidelined since June 16 due to a broken collarbone.

There will be 54 stakes offered worth $14.75 million, a 35 percent increase in stakes purses since last year. Several races, such as the Diana, Jim Dandy, Personal Ensign, Alabama, and Sword Dancer had their purses hiked to $600,000. The Fourstardave, raised from $150,000 to $500,000, has been shortened to a mile, filling a void for races at that distance in this region.

Though Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another is retired and Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags is out of the year, they will still run the Travers on Aug. 25.

McClain, who said her primary goal since coming to NYRA was to prepare a financial plan for the future, says she intends to delve into the racing end of things a bit more. And she said she wants to stay beyond this meet.

“This is a unique business challenge. A lot of us think that New York racing is a gem,” McClain said. “It’s a franchise that has endured for decades without a lot of investment and through some very difficult periods. When you get to a point where you actually have resources to invest in technology, to invest in the physical plant, and to market and reach out to a new generation of fans, that’s a nice business challenge and I certainly want to be part of it.”

russell More than 1 year ago
I never play the Pick 5 anywhere. Pick 4 is enough and NYRA has 2 daily. But they should do a Pick 5 at Saratoga. The handle is huge there. Over $14 mill daily. But the ladies at the Spa are the best. So many gorgeous women there.
Jack Twee More than 1 year ago
A LATE pick 5 at Saratoga would do over a $500,000 on a Saturday!
Jack Twee More than 1 year ago
The fact that NY racing doesn't have a late pick 5 yet shows me that NYRA is clueless.
mikey More than 1 year ago
Not even a early pick 5.This bet is big allover the country at major track's.Guess they don't need the money anymore.
russell More than 1 year ago
Anyone associated with Hayward and this scandal must go. Numerous people in NYRA management knew about the takeout scandal. SHE WAS THE COO for crying out loud. Either she knew and did nothing or she is INCOMPETENT because she should've known about it. Either way tell her to pack her bags. It sure looks like Cuomo wants a new VTL agreement and he wants the Aqueduct land and close racing there. So far no one is fighting him which is unusual in politics.
Frank More than 1 year ago
To little to late Ellen. You had your time. You failed and your are out! Now I dont want the Govt but I also dont want this broad!
NeilNap More than 1 year ago
Chris Lowe More than 1 year ago
I still do not understand why the State Racing and Wagering Board is not viewed as just as complicit in the takeout fiasco as NYRA has been. Anyone out there that has a serious and sincere explanation I would like to see it.
Peter Siipola More than 1 year ago
this is such a valid point, but they made a scapegoat out of the boss, while others walkaway blameless---i think many knew but let it go to make it the worst case possible---how the hell could something like that go on without detection?
mrm More than 1 year ago
In five years the NYRA purses will be at pre slot levels.
tom More than 1 year ago
Though Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another is retired and Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags is out of the year, they will still run the Travers on Aug. 25. that was a stupid line
Ian GW More than 1 year ago
She gets my vote. Full Fields. The educated handicapper than narrows it down to a playable race. Instead of 8 being narrowed down to a non-playable race.
HRoberish More than 1 year ago
Why are people fixated on big fields for races. The stock response is big fields equal big prices. American greed at work. In short, small fields equates to more frequent hits with smaller payouts which will keep you in the game longer. Large fields equates to larger hits much less frequently. Hey folks, you will run out of money first before your big field affection ever clicks.
Kurt K More than 1 year ago
HGibberish- Who wants 5 horse fields like Aqueduct?- a 1/9 favorite and the exacta pays $5.70! You prefer that? Go bet Harness racing if you like those payouts.
Frank More than 1 year ago
HRoberish, You must not be a gambler or know anything about gambling...Do you just go to the track to watch the horses run around?
mikey More than 1 year ago
You must have a jar filled with dime's
frederick More than 1 year ago
It's paramutual wagering with a high takeout rate. You absolutely need large fields to show a profit. You need positive expectation prices for your wagers.Makes me chuckle that people say they love turf racing when what really like are full fields. If racing had 6 or 7 grass races a day with 5 horse fields and 2 dirt races with 12 horses, the same people would say they love dirt racing.
ilias katogiritis More than 1 year ago
Thomas Cook More than 1 year ago
Government has no place in racing. As soon as the purses went up they stepped in to "regulate". The more they get their hands in this business the less chance we have to survuve.
tom More than 1 year ago
i remember an article about cuomo raising the tax on earnings for people whose horses hit the board. mainly cause of the racino