Below is part of an e-mail NYRA sent today about tomorrow’s card. The fourth bullet point refers to tomorrow’s card as presenting six GRADED stakes. Innocent mistake, or does no one at NYRA know what a graded stake is? I replied with a correction; let’s see if there’s an e-mail blast acknowledging the mistake.
I have previously criticized the New York Bred racing program as providing excessive subsidies to mediocre horses, at the expense of the bettors. This Friday’s New York Showcase Day confirms my view. An e-mail from NYRA touts “New York Showcase Day featuring six stakes for New York breds, highlighted by the $250,000 Albany.” Since NYRA apparently sees the Albany as the feature race, let’s look at the horses competing for the $250,000 purse.
Of the seven horses entered, only two have faced open competition, and those only managed maiden victories, both at Santa Anita. Force then failed twice at the preliminary allowance level at Santa Anita and Churchill Downs before winning the New York Derby, a state-bred stakes, at Finger Lakes. Battle of Evermore, despite several tries in open and state-bred allowance races and state-bred stakes races, has not won another race. The running lines of the other five entrants show only competition in races restricted to state-breds, and not all of these have won state-bred stakes. It is both a small and a weak field, even in the parallel state-bred universe, and no horse entered, I dare say, would have much of a chance in an unrestricted stakes at anywhere near this purse level.
NYRA keeps telling us that Saratoga has the best racing in the world. Maybe it does on certain days, but New York Showcase day is not one of them.
I recently read that some changes are in store for this season’s Saratoga meet, all of which seem to me negative from the fan’s perspective. Already paying more for admission, fans now will be asked to pay for reserved seats at some new picnic tables and in the Carousel. Several old trees will be removed to make way for a museum, despite the presence of one of national stature across the street. And a way of getting young people to the track, and maybe converting some of them into fans — the open house — will be no more.
What we don’t see, and I’m sure never will, is anything that recognizes that the track competes with other gambling venues. Improve the quality of racing on non “marquee” days? Lower the takeout? Provide free handicapping information? Throw your own account holders a bone by offering free admission to those showing NYRA rewards cards, even if only on weekdays? Not on your life. It’s all about squeezing the lemon.
I understand that NYRA is under pressure to be self-sustaining, and that it will not be easy for it to do so. I also understand that the amusement park model with which Mr. Kay is familiar is based on getting the “guests” to pay for everything. But amusements parks are sustained by many, many casual visitors who may visit a few times in a lifetime, or maybe once or twice a year. Racing is sustained by year-round bettors, who are finding it more and more difficult to stay in the game. What you can get out of the casual Saratoga fan, even if you squeeze the lemon really hard, isn’t going to keep the lights on at the Aqueduct tote board, and the few hundred lemons on the grounds there in January or February don’t contain much juice.
Dear Mr. Kay:
Congratulations on your appointment as President and CEO of NYRA. I wish you the best as you face the daunting challenges ahead.
Like most horse racing fans, I have been disappointed with the direction in which NYRA has been heading in recent years. While NYRA implicitly acknowledges the importance of the owners, trainers, jockeys and others who “put on the show,” those of us who finance the show feel we have been neglected and at times — such as when NYRA illegally overcharged us on certain bets, to name but one — abused. While VLT revenues have been used to inflate purses to wholly unrealistic levels, especially for low level claiming races and races restricted to New York breds, I am not aware of any meaningful portion of that money being directed to fans and bettors in the form of decreased takeout or reducing the costs of admission, programs, food or other fan amenities. I also am not aware of any meaningful expenditures to retain the existing (and declining) fan base, or to develop the new fans needed to sustain racing in the future. One need only to look at your closest competitors, the casinos, to see why customers have fled racing in droves: those establishments excel at customer service, make their customers feel valued by not nickeling and diming them with admission and other charges, and by rebating meaningful amounts of money wagered to even low rollers in the form of free meals and other comps.
You may think it unimportant to cultivate fans as long as you are receiving a portion of VLT revenues; I submit such a view would be short sighted. First, casino gambling revenues are declining in most jurisdictions, due to saturation of the market. If the constitutional amendment allowing “real” casino gambling in New York passes, VLT revenues will be, to say the least, negatively affected. In the shorter run, there already have been suggestions that the State will wake up and take the VLT monies used to subsidize racing to use for other purposes, especially if it perceives — correctly, in my view — that these monies are not being used to assure the long term self sufficiency of the sport.
If you decide, as I strongly suggest you should, to make one of the major goals of your tenure the retention of existing fans and the cultivation of new fans, you then have another major decision to make — whether your future fans will attend the races live, or watch and wager off site. Other than on Belmont day and at Saratoga, I might suggest that the fans already have decided to stay away in droves. Twice in the last year or so, I have been to Belmont on a Saturday, and I was joined by far fewer than 10,000 others. Vast expanses of the facility were closed, and it resembled a ghost town. If the future of horse racing is off-track, it might make sense to begin an ordered shrinking or decommissioning of the little-used facilities at Belmont and, certainly, Aqueduct. Year round racing may serve the needs of horsemen, but does it serve the needs of NYRA?
Off track or on, the most significant thing you can do to retain existing, regular bettors is to work to reduce the takeout which, along with breakage, has made it virtually impossible for regular players to afford to stay in the game. Do not buy the plea of the politicians that “no one will notice another one per cent.” That thinking has brought racing, and, in the context of taxation of businesses and individuals, New York, to its knees. And please don’t tell me that the NYRA One rebates to large players reduce the effective take out. While that program is a start, most of us cannot afford to bet anywhere near enough to qualify for those rebates. If you can’t reduce the take out, throw players a bone or two: how about free admission upon presentation of a NYRA One card, or the elimination of breakage on payouts into the NYRA one account. Bettors who wager a certain amount over a year would be delighted to receive tickets to a pair of club house seats at Belmont or Saratoga. I know that race books in Las Vegas provide significant comps to horse bettors; you could creatively offer a small portion of what they do.
The quality of racing also needs to be addressed. Racing in New York has been dominated by races for New York bred horses, who race in a parallel universe where the purses are the same for comparable races for open company, but the quality is many, many levels lower — so much lower, significantly, that the horses do not run true to form and the races, therefore, often are unplayable. One potential source of funds for reducing the take out is the bloated purses for such races. If you are able, you should restrict use of New York Bred funds to pay bonuses to New York breds that win in open company, as many other states do.
Attracting new fans requires outreach. Racing can be attractive on many levels – as a sport, as a gambling opportunity, and as an intellectual exercise in handicapping. Appropriate marketing materials can be tailored to appeal to people with each of those interests, and free admission days, with free programs and handicapping seminars, could take some of the mystery out of the game for new fans.
If racing is to have a future, the interests of fans (i.e., bettors) need to be served much better than they are now. Unfortunately, fans do not have an effective organized voice, as do the horsemen and their industry; however, the lack of such voice does not diminish the importance of fans to the survival of racing. Throw the fans a bone or two and you will do a lot to get racing heading in the right direction again and to fix the terrible public image of NYRA.
I was not aware of the controversy surrounding the 1968 Kentucky Derby, recounted in this fascinating NY Times obituary about the owner of the horse that was disqualified.
After he was able to cut off the VLT money, apparently Gov. Cuomo got the upper hand over NYRA, as this article suggests. Let’s hope the new, new NYRA (we now have the new NYRA, which hasn’t turned out so great) is a real, substantial improvement, and that at least one of the board members is a representative of the fan base, rather than the other already over-represented interests.