04/12/2013 1:51PM

Steven Crist: NYRA should look at adding to wagering menu, lowering takeout

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If you’ve been holding your breath waiting for anything about playing the horses in New York to change for the better, it’s time to exhale before you turn any bluer. The lesson from Thursday’s fourth meeting of the new New York Racing Association Reorganization Board was that things are moving even more slowly than anyone expected, and matters of genuine concern to actual customers seem to be falling further and further down the agenda.

No one thought that addressing major conceptual issues involving the future of New York racing was going to be a quick or easy task, but there seems to be a growing disconnect between that big picture and the ongoing operation of the racing game.

While the new state-appointed board slowly educates itself about the industry, neither the board nor its depleted and leaderless management team is considering the kinds of changes that customers actually care about, such as changes to the daily wagering menu, addressing archaic betting rules and regulations, or the long-term need to lower the rate of parimutuel takeout.

The situation is probably going to get worse before it gets better. NYRA, which has been without a chief executive for 11 months now, will lose its interim president at the end of this month, when Ellen McLain’s resignation becomes effective.

It became clear at Thursday’s board meeting that the board is not close to hiring a successor and will instead have to put together yet another interim leadership group. The search committee for the next CEO reported Thursday that it has interviewed more than 150 people as sources or candidates for the position, including many from outside racing, such as hospitality executives, but is only “rounding second base” in the process.

In the meantime, action items far less complex than the long-term philosophical issues being debated by the board’s committees remain unaddressed, and customers can be forgiven for feeling that they have no advocates in the process.

Players would, for example, welcome the addition of a low-minimum, low-takeout pick-five bet to the daily betting menu, a proposal made more than a year ago by former NYRA executives that has languished due to inattention rather than anyone’s objection to the idea. These kinds of bets have worked well at almost every track where they have been tried, generating new revenue and making customers feel that their concerns about affordability and takeout are being heard.

In the days before the state takeover, it was a grind to get something like a new bet approved in a different and dysfunctional political landscape. The once-powerful OTBs opposed any bet with a lower takeout, regulators stalled implementation with arcane concerns, and approvals were withheld month after month.

One of the benefits of the new political order was supposed to be that since the state was running NYRA, those roadblocks would disappear. Now, however, with no one at NYRA championing such changes and a board whose myriad committees don’t even include one on wagering, no one is even trying to make these changes.

That is a missed opportunity, as is the one to have, at long last, a fresh discussion about takeout and taxation rates and the best use of the windfall of slots money that has eased NYRA’s short-term financial woes. Without those pressures and political hurdles, now is the time for some bold experiments in pricing.

Maybe while the new NYRA is contemplating whether fancier dining and retail shopping are the path to success, as many board members seem to believe, it could also try a sharp reduction in the win-pool takeout, or see if some new bets and even lower minimums might stimulate the core business of selling parimutuel tickets.

Everyone would like to see the NYRA facilities cleaned up and made more inviting, but the new board must acknowledge that ontrack handle is a sliver of the business, and that there might be better uses for some of the slots money than putting it all into purses and facilities. In addition to being told they might be getting nicer restaurants in a few years, fans need to be educated and incentivized to handicap and bet today, and made to feel appreciated.

Something as simple as adding a new pick five doesn’t require the hiring of consultants, the intervention of the state, the formation of a committee, or public hearings – why not just do it?