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.