Congratulations to NYRA on a great Saratoga meet - but what comes next?

By all financial measures, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) had a tremendous, record-setting 40-day meet at Saratoga this summer.

All-source handle was a best-ever $648 million, 13.5 percent up on 2014. On track handle of $157.6 million was also a new record, a 4.8 percent increase over 2014.

These numbers were partly driven by a 4.8 percent increase in field size, rising from 7.87 in 2014 to 8.25 in 2015. In addition, spectacular weather resulted in a record 211 turf races being run, with only 10 taken off the turf as compared to 2014, when 193 races were run on the turf and 30 races were taken off it.

Saratoga and Del Mar are often compared to one another for the quality of racing and wagering activity. This year, however, the numbers were not even close.

Saratoga’s daily average all-source handle for the 40-day meet of $16.2 million was 32.8 percent higher than Del Mar’s $12.2 million, despite a higher field size at Del Mar of 8.8 horses.

In fact, 2015 was a disappointing season for Del Mar, with an all-source daily average decline of 1.2 percent from 2014 and a whopping average daily on-track handle decline of 14.6 percent.

North America’s dominant racetrack

In fact, in recent years, Saratoga Race Course has been the dominant track in North America when racing. Over a third of all Thoroughbred pari-mutuel wagers in August are on Saratoga’s races. No other racetrack throughout the year comes close.

On the track, there were many memorable performances, but nothing could compare with Keen Ice closing in the stretch to upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the G1 Travers Stakes. Something perhaps even more remarkable happened the day before, when American Pharoah galloped once around the track at 8:30 a.m. - and more than 15,000 people turned up to see him. Many longtime racing fans had never seen an event like it.

Despite the overwhelming success of the Saratoga meet, I have one observation: NYRA has made a concerted effort to promote “Big Days” at their three tracks, whereby they consolidate a number of Graded stakes races previously run on separate days and run them together on one race day. I wrote about this herein May.

The best example is this year’s Travers day, when NYRA ran seven Graded stakes and paid out purses of over $6 million.

As any Saratoga racing fan can tell you, any weekend day is a big day without needing numerous stakes races to dominate the card. The reality is that, even with a record Travers day handle this year of $49.7 million, I estimate there was a purse “overpayment” of about $3 million that had to come out of the general purse account.

What the purse overpayment means is that wagering activity did not cover the purses paid and purses on other race days are reduced to pay for this overpayment.

Here is a clear ramification of this strategy. The racing season at Saratoga has always been known for its 2-year-olds, the turf racing and stakes racing with a stakes race virtually everyday. However, if you take a close look at the stakes schedule for this summer, on 20 of the 40 racing days the biggest race was a $100,000 overnight stake.

When regular days don’t seem so special anymore

At first blush, that may sound like a decent purse for the best race of the day - but not when Maiden Special Weights are running for $83,000, Optional Claimers for $93,000 and Allowance horses for $95,000. All of a sudden, a regular day at Saratoga doesn’t seem quite as special anymore.

To make matters worse, the average field size for these 20 overnight stakes was 7.15, substantially less than the average field size of 8.25 for this year’s meet.

My personal view, as a former President and CEO at NYRA (2004-2012), is “Big Days” are of more interest to the casual fan than the serious betting customer, who drives the wagering business for the entire race meet. Spreading the stakes races throughout the meet and bumping up the purses of overnight stakes to create more consistent betting cards would generate more handle or wagering activity over time.  By focusing on a “Big Days” stakes consolidation program, the regular race days will become less attractive to the serious bettors and, over time, Saratoga will lose some of its luster as “The August Place To Be.”

One important issue that received no attention during the meet from NYRA management, its Board of Directors or the political leaders that currently control NYRA is the future of the New York Racing Association franchise.

The mystery of the NYRA reorganization plan

To refresh everyone’s memory, in the fall of 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo forcefully took control of NYRA by replacing the existing Board, which consisted of a majority of private members, with a new one in which a strong majority of members were appointed by the Governor and two members each were appointed by the two branches of the legislature. The legislation that mandated this change called for a three-year term for the newly reorganized Board and stipulated that the organization be restructured by October 2015. It would then “be returned to private control, remaining in the form of a not-for-profit corporation.”

Well it is now October 2015 and what has happened?

This spring, the NY State Legislature, with approval by Governor Cuomo, passed the 2015-2016 budget, which included a provision to push back the term of the NYRA Reorganization Board of Directors an additional year to October 2016.

In early March, Eric Anderson in the Albany Times Union reported that a NYRA reorganization plan was “all but finished” and would be presented to the legislature by mid-April, according to NYRA President and CEO, Chris Kay.

However, there have been three public meetings of the NYRA Board since that March date: April 22, June 24 and August 12. A review of the agendas and minutes of these three meetings reflect no discussion of or reference to the development of a plan to present to New York State Government to allow NYRA to reorganize itself in October 2016.

Unfortunately, this leaves the public and the racing industry with many questions and no answers.

Does Mr. Kay’s reorganization plan actually exist and, if so, why has it not been taken up in the NYRA Board meetings and further shared with the many constituents of the New York Thoroughbred racing industry, including owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, betting customers and the communities where NYRA races are conducted?  

When, and in what manner, will industry constituents have the opportunity to comment on and contribute to this plan? If the plan does not exist or is outdated, is it realistic to think that a reorganization plan can be developed and implemented in less than 12 months? Does New York State Government actually intend to turn the franchise back to a re-structured not-for-profit and, if so, what requirements do the legislature and the Governor have for the proposed re-structured entity?

Congratulations are surely due to NYRA for its successful 2015 Saratoga meet. However, there appears to be much work to be done on the new franchise.

Upon the creation of the NYRA reorganization Board on October 1, 2012, the State issued a statement that included the following: “The NYRA Reorganization Board will restore public trust, accountability and transparency to the racing industry in our state, so New York can continue to offer one of the most exciting enjoyable, safe horse racing experiences in the nation.”

It seems that we have a way to go to achieve this goal, but I am certainly rooting for them to succeed.

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