Monday, June 11, 2012

Why NYRA Needs a CEO -- and Who It Needs

Great racing, thrilling finishes, great television ratings (considering there wasn't a Triple Crown on the line), nearly $100 million in all-sources handle, beautiful weather. What was not to like about this year's Belmont Stakes?

Well, a million little things. None of them awful in themselves, but in the aggregate, Belmont Day was so much less than it could have been.

Let's start with the winner's circle and trophy presentations. Did no one think that Union Rags might win, and that his owner, Phyllis Wyeth, is wheelchair-bound and therefore not very likely to climb the stairs to the podium where NYRA usually presents its stakes-race trophies? The result of not thinking was that neither NYRA Chairman Steve Duncker nor NBC anchor Bob Costas seemed to know what was happening, and that the fans in the stands couldn't see anything of the post-race ceremony. Not to mention that the guys charged with putting the flower blanket on the winner seemed to have no idea when and where to do their job. Compare yesterday's mess with the well-staged trophy ceremonies for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness or, even better, with equivalent ceremonies at Epsom, Longchamp or Sha Tin. Owners wait their whole lives to win a race like the Belmont. Burying them in a crush in a crowded winners circle is just plain disrespectful.

Not that the presentations for the other stakes races were much better. We were told that Joe Torre was there to give away one trophy, and several others were awarded by representatives of the various corporate sponsors. Nothing wrong with that, but one would have liked to see a NYRA exec on hand as well, and as far as I could tell, NYRA Chair Steve Duncker appeared only for the Belmont Stakes and no one else, other than the horsemen's relations chief Carmen Barrera, who was charged with arranging the photo tableaux.

To give credit where it's due, NYRA racing operations manager Bruce Johnstone and chief NYRA vet Tony Verderosa did a super job when Giant Ryan broke down in front of the grandstand. They kept the horse calm and got him into an ambulance. Having to put a horse down on the track would have been just what the racing-bashes wanted. And Sam Grossman ("Sam the Bugler") and his colleague produced lengthy, witty calls to the post. Human Relations senior VP Dave Smukler succeeded in settling a threatened strike of maintenance workers and the starting gate crew that would have crippled the track.

But not everything was so well done. What about the hastily rearranged and almost ovelooked visit to the winners circle by I'll Have Another and his buddy Lava Man? We'd been told, leading up to the race, that I'll Have Another would lead the Belmont Stakes post parade. Don't know why that didn't happen, but, with no advance notice, hardly any of us in the crowd had the slightest idea what was going on when Lava Man did come by. Apparently, the change in plans was announced on Saturday, after most fans were on the way to the track. Would have been nice to honor that horse with a bit more forethought and ceremony. For that matter, hardly any of the 85,000-plus in attendance could even see the winners circle. Nice show for those in the owners' boxes, but not for the rest of the audience.

Another lack: the lovely spectacle that, in years past, we used to see on the main track in between the stakes races. No sign of the Budweiser Clydesdales, the Nassau Police mounted troop, not even the barrel races and reining and cutting horses.  Sure, those things aren't earth-shattering, but they would have made for some nice entertainment in the long gaps between races.

On to more mundane issues: security guards directing traffic bemoaned the lack of advance instruction and clear directions; concession stands ran out of food well before the Belmont Stakes, which was only the 11th of 13 races; and I have it on good authority that several of the women's restrooms were, umm, less than sanitary by midway through the card. Again, not the end of the world, but it could have been done better.

And perhaps the largest issue: why wasn't the Belmont Stakes weekend turned into a three-day festival of racing? Churchill makes almost as much out of Oaks Day on Friday as out of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Wouldn't it have been terrific to plan a three-day program that would have included additional stakes races and perhaps a spring New York showcase on Sunday. Maybe with exhibits in the parking lot (NYRA used to do this). I know, there's a big cleanup issue after the Belmont Stakes; not only was the track closed on Sunday, but so was the training track, greatly inconveniencing those trainers stabled a mile or so from the main track). But still, obstacles are there to be overcome by vision. A more leisurely Friday and Sunday would have given some of the new fans who turned out just for the racing on Saturday the chance to learn more about our wonderful sport and perhaps become lifelong fans.

The problem, as I see it, is that no one is in charge. With Charlie Hayward fired first and asked questions later, the two top full-time officials at NYRA are now Ellen McClain, hired not so long ago as the chief financial officer and only recently named chief operating officer and President, and acting general counsel Kenneth Handal. Below them are a bunch of hard-working, competent senior vice presidents in charge of various bits of the operation. But none of them have the breadth of experience to oversee the whole show. Alas, to my knowledge hardly any of these folks are real racing people, with the breadth of knowledge, racing experience and vision that NYRA so evidently needs. And NYRA Chairman Steve Duncker, a Goldman Sachs alum, doesn't bring that depth of experience, either.

Perhaps it's over-simplifying to say that having a real racing person in day-to-day charge of NYRA would have fixed some of Saturday's problems, but it surely couldn't have hurt.

The racing exec I remember best for combining vision and attention to detail was Doug Donn, who ran the old Gulfstream, before Frank Stronach's evil empire acquired it. Doug thought big, and Florida Derby Day was always a treat, but he also thought small, roaming the grandstand almost every day with his clipboard and making sure the fans' concerns were taken seriously. Last time I saw anyone with a clipboard at NYRA, it was Bill Nader, now happily ensconced as Director of Racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Reportedly, NYRA is actively searching for a new CEO, even before Governor Andrew Cuomo's takeover of the racing association is complete. Presumably, any choice will have to be approved by the Governor, whose consigliere Michael DelGiudice is Vice Chairman of the NYRA Board. Predictably, all the usual suspects have surfaced. Lou Raffetto, late of the Maryland Jockey Club; Greg Avioli, late of the Breeders Cup and most recently the revolving-door executive suite at Stronach's empire, and so on. 

But it would be interesting if those making the choice would think a bit further outside the box. What are we looking for? At a minimum, we desperately need someone who understands both racing and how to run large organizations. Someone with a racing background AND a background in managing businesses Someone who can see both the fans' concerns and those of the other stakeholders in the industry, and someone who can assemble a management  team that also gets the fact that it's racing we're talking about, not gaming, which is what Bob Evans and Churchill Downs seem to be about, and not a collection of uncoordinated departments, which is pretty much what NYRA is now. We're running races on the premier thoroughbred circuit in the nation, if not in the world, not making widgets.

As it so happens, I have just the right candidate.  A while ago, I wrote several blogs (here, here and here) about the scheduled auction of Laurel and Pimlico, aborted at the last minute by Frank Stronach so he could keep personal control and get rid of those pesky shareholders. The group I hoped would take over Maryland racing at the time was headed by Jeff Seder, the president of the bloodstock agency and equine research firm, EQB, Inc. Since he's not in Maryland, I'd love to see Jeff in New York.

[Disclosure: Jeff's a friend, and I've worked for EQB at several Keeneland yearling sales. We've had interesting conversations over the years about how he might run a racetrack.]

Jeff has a bachelor's, business and law degrees from Harvard; He's worked for Citibank, managed investment portfolios, and for 26 years ran a large textile company, all the while staying involved in racing and spending lots of his time and his own money developing state-of-the-art techniques for analyzing thoroughbreds and their performance. He's also a major philanthropist, putting several million of his own money into the Big Picture Alliance, a media-skills project for at-risk youth in Philadelphia. And, in connection with his bid for the Maryland Jockey Club properties, he's thought seriously about how to run a racetrack.

Mike Del Giudice, Ben Liebman, and anyone else out there who's involved in this decision, I hope you take a serious look at Jeff and bring him into the conversation.