07/18/2012 4:26PM

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.”