06/21/2013 1:35PM

Steven Crist: Kay should focus on mending fences between NYRA, state government


Now that the New York Racing Association Reorganization Board has finally named a new chief executive after going 14 months without one, should fans expect any quick and dramatic changes to the sport or the operation of the Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga?

Probably not.

Christopher Kay, the 60-year-old attorney and former corporate and land-conservation executive who was named to the post last Tuesday begins work July 1. Saratoga Race Course opens 18 days later for a 150th anniversary meeting that will probably look and unfold exactly the same way as if NYRA had waited another few months to hire someone. While Kay’s experience at Toys “R” Us and Universal Parks and Resorts might suggest he will skew in a customer-friendly fashion, his professional experience has been largely on the corporate, legal, and privatization arenas,, not in product development, much less actual racing and wagering.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Any expectation that Kay is going to transform or reinvent New York racing 22 months before it is scheduled to be re-privatized is unrealistic and would probably be a waste of his time and talents.

Racetracks and racing organizations periodically go with the “fresh eye” approach to appointing leaders, bringing in someone from another arena whose lack of exposure to racing is supposed to be an asset. It usually ends poorly. The learning curve is steep for this unique industry, and the widely held notion that all sorts of simple, common-sense solutions have never been tried before because track executives are a bunch of dimwits turns out not to be true. For example, every fresh eye comes in saying that racing must be marketed to a broader and younger audience, as if this is a revolutionary idea that has never occurred to anyone else.

New York racing’s problems have little to do with track operations or who works at NYRA, but with its relationship to state government, which for decades has held the sport hostage to politics. Track operators have generally favored and advocated the same things that every fan would like to see – better racing, better facilities, lower pricing via takeout reductions, superior wagering, and video technology.

The problem is execution, not ideology: The simplest changes are opposed at every turn by warring political forces, unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, and constant charges of conspiracy and scandal even where none exist. For decades the sport was deprived of money that could have been spent to ensure its prosperity by an offtrack betting system that bled the sport to create its own jobs program. By putting the producers of the racing product in direct conflict with the offtrack retailers, the state practically ensured a legacy of destructive conflict.

The power of the OTBs has waned to some extent with the disappearance of the once-powerful New York City operation, but now the state’s casino and racino operations have become the poster boys for a dysfunctional relationship with racing. While racino revenues have been a welcome boost to race purses, there is little good will or partnership between the sport and the Genting racino that opened at Aqueduct two years ago. Any notion that this might be a mechanism for increasing interest in or exposure to the track has disappeared into a contentious relationship where the two entities do nothing to help each other. Genting has removed any signs indicating that there is a racetrack on the premises and won’t even show the track simulcast feed at its casino bars.

Even now, NYRA can not even make simple business decisions in the public interest without bizarre delays caused by governmental interference. It has been trying to execute a contract for a new betting platform for almost a year now, but has been sent back to square one by a Franchise Oversight Board that found a technical violation in procurement procedures that had no effect on the bidding or the awarding of the contract to a lone qualified vendor. Why in the world does NYRA, now run by the state, also need a Franchise Oversight Board second-guessing its every move?

Kay’s opportunity, and what he brings to the table, lies in navigating this treacherous, jumbled public-private gauntlet and squaring it away for the future, not coming up with some new ad campaign or restaurant plan. The window in the next two years is to set up a new relationship with the state that will make racing and government a partnership instead of an arena for constant sniping and maneuvering. If Kay can create such a partnership, then turn NYRA back to racing people whose sole agenda is the survival and prosperity of the sport and its historic tracks, he will have turned out to be the perfect choice for the job.