By DAVID GRENING
OZONE PARK, N.Y. – After taking a deep breath following the arduous franchise negotiation process, the New York Racing Association’s president, Charles Hayward, will soon begin tackling a number of topics he hopes will improve the landscape of the state’s Thoroughbred racing industry. But, in a lengthy interview Friday, Hayward said that change will not come quickly.
On Wednesday, the state awarded NYRA the franchise to run racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga for the next 25 years. While the legislation also approves the construction of a slots parlor that will house 4,500 video lottery machines at Aqueduct, Gov. Eliot Spitzer has yet to select an operator for the project. He has said he will do so within 30 days, though he is not bound by any deadline.
Admitting that it’s a "a real neophyte guess," Hayward said that he doesn’t foresee the slots parlor opening for another "16 to 17 months."
Meanwhile, Hayward said that NYRA will shortly start working on other issues, such as the possible merger with or acquisition of New York City Off-Track Betting.
"I think OTB is probably front and center," Hayward said during a wide-ranging interview in his Aqueduct office.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has publicly threatened to shut down the city’s OTB company by mid-June if legislation isn’t introduced to lower the amount of money OTB has to pay the state and the racing industry.
"The complexity of the problem is greater than what’s been represented by the city," Hayward said. "By that, I mean, specifically, they’ve basically said, ‘We’re a good operating business that makes a profit, but we have to give too much money to the state.’ I think you need to challenge some of those assumptions."
Hayward said NYRA would soon initiate talks with OTB officials concerning several topics.
"Let’s talk about account wagering," he said. "Let’s talk about Internet and home wagering. Let’s talk about the TV show. Let’s talk about marketing. It took over 30 years to get us where we are, so a deadline of June 1 to get this completely resolved is not realistic.’
Ray Casey, the president of New York City Off-Track Betting, said he was disappointed that his company’s financial crisis was not addressed in the franchise legislation, but that he has always favored a stronger alignment between NYRA and OTB.
"I hope over some time we’ll be able to work out the issues, but we have a crisis coming in June," said Casey, who praised NYRA’s senior management for getting the franchise deal done without a stoppage of racing. "It’s not a created deadline, it’s just a fact."
Casey said that New York City OTB could run out of cash by the first week in June.
United OTB front envisioned
Hayward said he believes a merger of many of the state’s six offtrack betting corporations and NYRA could be achieved if the parties presented a united front to Albany legislators.
"If the racing association and three or four OTBs showed up and said we’d like to do this, I think they’d be thrilled," he said.
Hayward said some of the long-term projects NYRA will soon start to address are things like "artificial surfaces, repair and reconstruction of the turf courses, backstretch dormitory issues, and other facility enhancements and capital improvement issues."
Hayward said NYRA would get approximately $19 million annually from the slots project to earmark for capital improvements.
In the short term, NYRA will begin making a concerted effort to improve its customer relations. According to Hayward, NYRA has already expanded its marketing department from three people to eight while readjusting the department’s focus under Gavin Landry, NYRA’s senior vice president of sales and market development.
Player rewards to get upgrades
Hayward said NYRA will soon announce a complete revamping of its player rewards program that will include, at Belmont Park, a hospitality lounge for big players on the second floor of the clubhouse.
"There would be different tiers of not only rewards, but hospitality," Hayward said.
Hayward said NYRA will use part of the first-floor clubhouse at Belmont for a hospitality and welcoming center. Hayward said NYRA will also begin drawing plans to upgrade Belmont Park’s backyard.
"People talk about how quaint and how nice it is, the reality is there’s a few TVs there, a few benches, but they’re not really in an organized fashion," he said.
Hayward said he hopes to get horsemen involved in discussions about several topics, including synthetic surfaces and drug-testing. In an effort to curb the use of illegal medication, NYRA in 2005 initiated the use of raceday security barns, which, for the most part, horsemen have held in disdain. Hayward said advancements in testing could eliminate the need for those barns.
"I’d like to find a more effective way to address this more comprehensively than security barns," said Hayward, who added he favors a ban on the use of steroids. "I think the security barn has been helpful certainly in [monitoring] CO2 levels in horses, but I think we need a more comprehensive strategy than that."
Hayward said he would also like to get horsemen involved in discussions over the possible use of synthetic surfaces for either training or racing. Hayward said a prime candidate would be Aqueduct’s main track, which has been plagued by problems the last few years.
"We’ve got to get the horsemen involved right from the get-go," he said. "They’ve got their own ideas, they’ve got a lot of different experiences."
In addition to marketing strategies, Hayward said that NYRA will shortly begin working on upgrading its technology to help improve communication with fans and horsemen.
Hayward, 57, said after years of sitting on the sidelines, NYRA could become "more of a dynamic force in the industry." He also said that he plans on staying in his current position for the foreseeable future.
"I’m here until I get tired of what I’m doing," he said. "But I’m very excited about the opportunities that are in front of us."