NY racing 2014: Change, for better or worse

In some ways, 2014 was just like a lot of other years in New York racing: unstable, unpredictable, a waiting game to see what will happen next, as the first full year of the newest NYRA leadership put its stamp on racing in the state.

While the state-controlled NYRA board held its first meeting in December of 2012, president and CEO Chris Kay came in six months later, with senior vice president of racing operations Martin Panza coming on board late in 2013.

2014 saw the first edition of the new stakes-packed Belmont Day featuring the Met Mile, moved from its traditional spot on Memorial Day, and the sixth attempt at a Triple Crown this century.  Belmont Day signaled NYRA’s commitment to Big Event racing, an approach on which the organization will build in 2015, adding a multi-stakes Friday to Belmont weekend and bulking up Travers Day at Saratoga.

Last year also saw, on August 2nd, the 150th anniversary of Saratoga Race Course–though you could be forgiven for not knowing that, as nobody at NYRA mentioned it or marked that anniversary, one that no other sporting venue in this country can claim.

Price increases–for parking, for admission, for group sales—made big news in the just-departed year. Kay says that we can expect more of the same in 2015.

After years of delays, Longshots made its debut at Aqueduct.  A terrific facility, it opened on Wood Memorial Day, offering a dedicated area for NYRA Reward’s big spenders, carrels for handicappers, a bar, tables, and dozens of televisions tuned to racetracks and sporting events.

It also, we quickly discovered, offered high drink prices, a 2-drink minimum at the tables, and an automatic 20% gratuity for the bartender, thanks to Genting, which has the contract for all the concessions on the racing side at Aqueduct.  Even those usurious prices, though, felt like a bargain compared to the $7.50 cappuccino, $18 cheesesteak, and $13.50 hot dogs (but you get two!) with which we were greeted when we came back to Aqueduct in November.

Also waiting for us in November were cover charges at Longshots, instituted over the summer when not so many people were paying attention to what was going on Aqueduct: $10 for non-NYRA Rewards members, $5 for NYRA Rewards customers.  So if you want to sit at a table in Longshots, be prepared to shell out in the neighborhood of $25 (cover charge, 2-drink minimum, 20% tip) before buying past performances or making a bet.

NYRA continues to work, we are told, on wresting the concessions contract back from Genting; at first that was supposed to have been done by November, then by the end of the year. No current timetable has been offered, but NYRA representatives have repeatedly expressed frustration and dissatisfaciotn about the current situation and the way its customers are being treated.  Perhaps 2015 will bring us a resolution.

Last year we saw The New York Times publish an edited PETA video allegedly exposing abuse in the barn of Steve Asmussen; we saw The Blood-Horse offer analysis of the full, unedited video. We did not see a Times story on that full video, though it was viewed by more than one staffer for the paper.

Also unseen in 2014: a report on the investigations of Asmussen by both the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and the New York State Gaming Commission. But hey, they only had nine months. Maybe those reports will be one of our racing gifts in 2015.

Speaking of racing publications: in September I received a very courteous notice from the Daily Racing Form informing me that my DRF+ subscription had been conveniently auto-renewed. Less courteous was the dismaying realization that that auto-renew had occurred without my permission, and at a rate double what I had paid the previous year.

Ever responsive (and I mean that 100% seriously—a lot of other businesses could take a lesson from DRF in this area), DRF customer service told me that the additional cost was because my editorial DRF+ subscription had now been bundled with Simulcast Daily, a service for which I have zero use and for which it makes no sense for me to pay nearly $100 a year.

So, much to my sadness, 2014 also saw the end of my readership at DRF, as apparently the $100 or so a year I’m willing to pay to read its articles is no longer welcome if I don’t also want a subscription to handicapping materials, especially at twice the price.

The eminently respectable Paris Review turned its attention to racing last summer, publishing a perplexingly inaccurate story about a day at “the Aqueduct” last January. Read the account of the race, check the chart, and make sure that you don’t follow the author’s directions for getting to Saratoga.

Emerging in 2014 in New York racing was a disturbing trend towards ignoring the unpleasant.  Where tracks like Laurel and Gulfstream regularly provide updates on injured jockeys and horses, NYRA not only seldom releases that information, but it also removes from its website the replays of races in which horses are injured. There are opposing and equally compelling points of view on scrubbing the races, but it’s hard to come up with a persuasive reason for not posting/sending updates after racing accidents, particularly given the public’s desire for such information.

The re-organized NYRA board has preached transparency from its first meeting, but in 2014, that didn’t extend to attendance figures. The first few days at Saratoga saw no released figures (conspiracy theorists might think it had something to do with the increased admission prices, and fear that attendance would drop); after the public and media clamored for the information, NYRA began to announce suspiciously high figures, then admitted that every day’s attendance included the 6,200+ season passes that had been sold at the beginning of the meet. Yes, professional sports teams do similar, with “attendance” equaling “tickets sold”—but a) it’s not the same thing, because a season pass does not equal a daily ticket sold, and b) why adopt the duplicitous practices of other sports?

Back at Belmont in the fall, NYRA dispensed with all attendance pretenses and stop releasing the daily figures. So much for transparency.

Both at Saratoga in the summer and at Aqueduct as the year came to an end, horse fatalities spiked alarmingly, but at the last three board meetings, NYRA has continued to tout its safety record, as if the progress made over the last few years was not at risk of being undone. Not a single concern about safety has been publicly expressed by NYRA’s executives, in stark contrast to the voices of its customers; no comment has been made about how the increase in injuries will be addressed.

As we enter 2015, we can expect more of the same, which is to say, we can expect more that is different. By April, the NYRA board will have approved and submitted to Governor Cuomo a plan for re-organization; by October, the current board will, by statute, be dissolved.

And then what?

Happy new year, everyone.

Photo: Tonalist winning the 146th Belmont Stakes. NYRA/Adam Coglianese

3 thoughts on “NY racing 2014: Change, for better or worse

  1. I agree with charging to enter Longshots…..plenty of “riff raff” at the track…..charging a fee helps ensure a civilized enviornment

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