Reinventing Racing - By Eric Mitchell

The New York Racing Association went through a year of turmoil in 2012, a year of rebuilding in 2013, and now is entering a year of experimentation.

As is the nature of all experiments, not all of them will fly, but that’s OK as long as new ideas continue being tried. NYRA CEO Chris Kay kicked off the 40th annual Arizona Global Symposium on Racing & Gaming Dec. 10 with an overview of some experiments that have been tried and others that are on the horizon.

Within the first 10 minutes of his speech, Kay used the words “guest” and/or “experience” about a dozen times. One of NYRA’s big goals in the coming year, Kay said, is to change the perception of the racetrack from being a place to avoid to being a place that’s cool, particularly among consumers 18-35—the most important demographic to all businesses, according to Kay.

“By virtue of being a short distance to Manhattan and Brooklyn, (Aqueduct) is close to a large population of those 18-35-year-olds; the same young adult crowd that tend to go to the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), have disposable income, and are known to be enthusiastic about retro activities like bowling, arcade games, and pool,” Kay said.


The challenge is obvious. Aqueduct Racetrack was built in 1955 and has the aesthetic charm of a commercial warehouse when compared with the professional stadiums and arenas built within the last 15 years. In order to try to give the place a new vibe, NYRA invited 14 street artists armed with cans of spray paint to liven up the drab walls throughout the grandstand. Over three nights and with the only direction from Paul Kelleher, NYRA’s corporate development executive, to “do something that was in the spirit of the place,” according to the New York Times, the artists transformed white cinder block into canvases.

 “We brought out a lot of new fans to our racetrack; we created buzz,” Kay said.


But once the fans are on the grounds comes the next equally vital piece of the puzzle; they have to want to come back.

This is where Kay said NYRA needs to ramp up the customer service machine.

Kay is not a racing guy. He’s a business guy with experience in retail and the hospitality industry, and he doesn’t operate by instinct. He goes by the numbers, using research to identify his audience, collects data to monitor behavior, and analyzes the metrics to determine success or failure.

“We have to create a new experience with the new and casual fans—say ‘good morning’ when they arrive and ‘good evening’ when they leave. Then we need to collect data from the moment they arrive in order to anticipate their needs.

“To succeed, you need to focus with laser-like precision on the guest,” he said.

How does the call to improve customer service square with a proposal to increase admission fees at Saratoga Race Course and Belmont Park? Well it isn’t sitting well with some of the NYRA board members, and it is our humble opinion that businesses asking people to gamble should not be charging for entrance or parking anyway, but if the experience at the racetrack improves at all—then a day at the track even at the higher rate—will still be an entertainment bargain. The proposed fee hike would take general admission from $3 to $5 and admission to the clubhouse from $5 to $8. You can’t get into a New York Mets home game for under $18.

Making the big-event days—such as Belmont Stakes day—bigger, turning new senior vice president of racing Martin Panza loose to create new event days, and adding 550 new flat screen televisions and high-definition video boards throughout the tracks are other improvements in the works. Like we said, every new idea won’t be a good one, but at least NYRA is out there pushing and experimenting. If there is one thing racing can’t get enough of, it’s new ideas.


Leave a Comment:


He's in over his head.

17 Dec 2013 3:22 PM
Umbrella Man

Most of those guests will never sit atop any horse, and that's a pity.

How about  giving them the 'ride' of their lives by placing a small camera on the jocks gear, and using the high def for the ultimate fan experience?

18 Dec 2013 6:20 AM

want the youngsters to bet--advertise those pick six pots on the internet.  that(advertising) would be reinvention for sure.

18 Dec 2013 10:38 AM
John from Baltimore

One thing NYRA did right was offer bonus money for Breeder Cup and grade one winnners for the Cigar Mile.  They got star power for their race, unlike Delta Downs who got a bunch of no name horses for their million Dollar Jackpot.  Horse racing needs to change the way they pay purses so that they have horses that have star power and draw before you throw big money at them.  A first year line man or a rookie point guard don't make as much as a Tom Brady or a Micheal Jordan so why doesn't horse racing reward its star horses with more so owners keep them around.

18 Dec 2013 10:39 AM

I get that horse racing is a business and that giving gainful work to a number of starving artists benefits many. I appreciate any effort to keep the Sport of Kings alive and thriving. Hooray for Aqueduct!

18 Dec 2013 3:11 PM

Chris Kay talks about "enhancing the guest experience" and the first thing NYRA does is propose raising admission prices at Saratoga and Belmont. I don't see casinos raising their admission prices. Oh, that's right, they don't have any. Chris Kay has zero credibility.

18 Dec 2013 5:04 PM
Denis Murphy

I couldn't agree more. I am an under 40 owner and breeder in NYS and we need the new ideas. I love the old school ways but I am already here.

22 Dec 2013 8:08 AM
Salvatore Carcia

I wish Chris Kay the best. I do think differently here. First of all, racing needs to bond with existing customers before it decides to find younger ones. Satisfying your regular customers is not that hard. You just have to treat them with respect and show them you value them. It doesn't require a market study. He just has to really spend some time in the stands and it will become apparent what needs to be done. If he doesn't, then it will only take the new fans one visit to realize they are in a unhappy and non-fan oriented environment.

23 Dec 2013 10:51 AM

Like K Mart he is way outta touch...period...

26 Dec 2013 9:21 AM
Pedigree Ann

Let us be absolutely correct - the original Aqueduct opened in 1894 with a 10f track (Belmont came along in 1905), reduced to 1 mile in 1940. The old track was torn down following the 1955 season and entirely rebuilt in a nearby location, opening in 1959, with its current 9f configuration. Was the old surface re-used for the new track? I don't know. But you are referring only to the cavernous grandstand, built to accommodate the crowds of the time - the old one was too small.

Aqueduct has been the red-haired stepchild of the NYRA for quite some time now, stripped of its mid-summer meeting and most of its signature events - the JC Gold Cup, Vosburgh, Brooklyn H, Dwyer H (Brooklyn Derby), etc. Its second turf course was dug up to install the egregious Inner Track, and it has been condemned to suffer the weather-plagued winter racing season. No wonder the facility has been neglected. Some years ago, the NYRA wanted stop racing during the worse part of the winter, but the Gov. (Mario Cuomo) didn't want to lose the tax revenue from the take-out, so forced the track to race when it didn't want to.

There was a reason that NY tracks closed after November and re-opened in March, the horses shipping south or to the farm. But greed overcame good sense and Aqueduct was the victim.

29 Dec 2013 9:21 AM

I know the insurance companies would go nuts but some controlled interaction with some of the horses would be a big draw.  After a morning breeze at Saratoga, after morning workouts at Aqueduct.  I know some horses are not social but the trainers and grooms know the horses that are social.  The jockey cam on the internet.  An email notifying you that a favorite horse is running and where.  Another idea is to do short bios on the horse and trainer.  Young people like to be invloved and relate to animals or trainers that earned there position.  Every horse has a quirk or two let the fans know.  I would even consider high school field trips on dark days to see what the backstretch is all about. My love for racing started when my Grandfather use to take me to Green Mountain Racetrack.  I was able to touch a horse and see them up close. Now I am an owner/breeder myself.  NYRA you have so much opportunity to make racing in NY a business plan for others to follow        

01 Jan 2014 10:00 PM
Drinks from a glass !!

as you know , i enjoy winer racing at the big A...

i also believe mr kay will be a huge plus for nyra racing ....

customer care, hospitality, attention to detail, takeout %,race track appearance,racing days  all these areas are being addressed...little by little u will see improvement....he is a proven business leader , far different than what we had from the nyra government run board ....the 50 cent opening pik 5 is a fantastic bet with low takeout..paysthe customer dearly...

the big A looked much better when we visited 1-1-14...

street art and wall art looked great ....

tvs, outside tote boards illuminate bright....big improvement...was greeted on the way in and the way out by an enthusiastic employee...........

prices at the big a to remain at zero ... Belmont admission 5 bucks in 2014...Saratoga undetermined at this days in January 2014 thurs -Monday..

big A grandstand lower level still needs some attention to comfort and detail maintenance....

the paddock area could use some additional heaters..

sunday the 5th the 9th race canceled due to tractor breakdown ..pik 3 4 and 6 was an all button .. pik 6 carried to this Thursday from last Saturday due to ny law of some sort

the casino at aqueduct very kay good luck we love our racing ...good luck to you.....

08 Jan 2014 7:42 AM
Drinks from a glass !!

mr kay is a huge improvement for nyra racing... experience from the business world...not the old govt run sloppy nyra......

you will see big improvements in customer areas...

you will see better tvs , toteboards,training for employees, less race days at aqueduct winter...track appearance ...

our recent visit 1-1-14 to the big A was evident of the subtle changes being made daily by the KAY team ...

the wall art the tvs the toteboard the lower takeout on early 50 cent pik 5 the large payouts on the pik 5.

an enthusiastic hostess greeted us on way in and out !

admission prices going up at Belmont to 5 bucks...

Saratoga undetermined....the big A still zero ....

lets give mr kay a shot ..... i am sure we will see better....

08 Jan 2014 7:52 AM
Drinks from a glass !!

mr kay ....!!!

i do believe the takeout on my favorite pik 6

carry days is way too high at 24 %............

why only 15 non carry days................?

by the way , why did the pik 6 carry to this Thursday

because of a tractor malfunction ....consumer deserves a

good explanation at times ...

08 Jan 2014 8:02 AM
Drinks from a glass !!


nice ... interior lower level on the improve ... mr kay is doing his job ... the longshots simulcast center is real nice .. food service not up yet for the second floor center .. soon we heard.... 5 dollar admission to the room and 9 dollar Heinekens bit steep ....

overall nice all around sports room ..........

back to the racing surface ....take out the inner track ..expand the turf course..........

the dimensions of the track are perfect for 6 6.5 7f ..

adds a lot to your handicapping angles ...

it is the nyc city course....can be a jewel again...

several trainers I spoke with like training on the track .belief is if the inner was removed training in the am would be much better ...

mr .kay  keep up the good work ... naysayers everywhere including mr repole   ......and jerry b from the ny daily......

easy fix at aqueduct .... !!!!!!

20 Apr 2014 9:49 AM
Drinks from a glass !!

how about Belmont  ....

is the dirt track outdated   ... modern one mile ovals 2 turn races ..... think about it ...

20 Apr 2014 9:51 AM
Drinks from a glass !!

New York racing better by the kay great job ... breeders solid nybreds     samraat uncle sigh ....many champs on their way ....

the best is yet to come... horsemen and fans .. give this Mr Kay some love and patience...

27 Apr 2014 9:17 AM
Drinks from a glass !!

Belmont stakes day card is so super.      Make it as fun for the fan .  I assume the triple crown will be on the line in 2014

04 May 2014 10:05 AM
Drinks from a glass !!

triple crown here for mr kay    ....want to see a smooth change of leads  ?    8 grade 1 races ... a business pro will be ready ...  his finances already showing dramatic improvement and York racing in great hands...

19 May 2014 1:33 AM

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