NYRA's Choice A-O-Kay - by Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the June 29/July 6, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Evan Hammonds - @BH_EHammonds on Twitter

By Evan Hammonds After more than a week of the news floating around in the online realm, the New York Racing Association officially announced 60-year-old Christopher Kay as its new CEO June 18. Few in the industry have had time to meet Kay, but from what we’ve read so far he appears to be the right man for the position. His first day on the job is July 1.

The knee-jerk reaction from some pundits has focused on Kay’s lack of a racing background. We are not alone in deeming that quality of little importance to the man who will take the helm of the racing operations at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga.

When interviewed just after the annoucement, David Skorton, board chair of NYRA, couldn’t have been more correct in his assessment of Kay.

“The search committee, number one, thought it was very important to have someone with leadership and management experience. I’d like to say that a lot of problems NYRA has experienced in the past have not been because of racing savvy, but because of government savvy.

“Chris was a dream candidate for us because he cares about racing,” Skorton said. “He loves it. He’s been doing it since he was a young person and wants it to succeed, but basically he is a very strong manager and leader from different types of organizations—for profit, not-for-profit—organizations that had to deal in the government sector.”

Kay does have a working knowledge of racing. As a young man, he spent time at Cahokia Downs, a blue-collar track outside St. Louis, and after starting his career as an attorney developed a relationship with breeder/owner Donald Dizney. Dizney suggested Kay get involved as a minority owner in some horses such as Wekiva Springs, but Kay went another sporting route into a minor league baseball franchise.

Wekiva Springs won the Suburban and Gulfstream Park handicaps (both gr. I) for Dizney and co-owner James English in 1996. Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, the Dizney-bred son of Runaway Groom won 10 of 21 starts and earned just more than $1.5 million.

Kay’s most important assignment will be getting to know and getting along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the key lawmakers in Albany. Kay wades into uncharted waters right off the bat with the state-run franchise as lawmakers wrangle with expanding casino gaming.

The Upstate NY Gaming Economic Development Act, which will establish four destination gaming resorts in upstate New York, was signed off on by Cuomo June 19. The plan will go before New York voters this fall, and passage or failure may have major implications to the state’s purse structure and growing state-bred program.

Kay will also have to get on top of capital improvements for NYRA. Uncertainty, political wrangling, and poor fiscal performance have dogged the franchise for years. Spelling them out and following through are of the utmost importance to the immediate and long-term success of racing in New York.

Also, Kay will be tasked with figuring out the end game for the state’s three-year “take over” of the NYRA franchise in 2012.

Kay will need to hit the ground running. His job starts less than three weeks prior to the opening of the Saratoga meeting—the most important and profitable six-week period of the year for NYRA. He quickly needs to learn his way around the backstretch and grandstand, forging relationships with horsemen and listening to breeders, owners, and racing fans.

But perhaps Kay’s most important role will be as the man “out front” for NYRA, which has been a rudderless ship for more than a year. The NYRA franchise is too important, not only for the state of New York but for the state of Thoroughbred racing and breeding in North America. With the largest market segment of the wagering dollar in the U.S., as goes NYRA, so goes the game.

No added pressure there, Chris. Welcome aboard.

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