Commentary

Can NYRA be great again?

Updated: December 18, 2012, 7:05 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

David Skorton, the president of Cornell who has taken over as Chairman of the New York Racing Association, and his new Board of Directors have officially begun the process of picking up the broken pieces and rebuilding a racing organization that went off the rails. It's up to them to point NYRA in some sort of direction, but I'm not sure they have necessarily figured out what direction that is. I hope they will take their lead from Board member and celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

We don't have a product that the public wants to go see.

-- Bobby Flay, NYRA Board member
"We don't have a product that the public wants to go see," Flay said at last week's NYRA Board meeting. "We need to build the infrastructure of the racing product. We need to start doing that now, not a year from now. NYRA was always the leader of this industry and we have lost that. We're not at the top, we're somewhere in the middle."

Flay is right. Like a lot of us, he first embraced racing in an era when there were the New York Racing Association tracks and there was everyone else. NYRA had the best horses, jockeys, trainers, purses. It had the most important races. Its list of leading owners was a who's who of American aristocracy. The Sport of Kings, indeed. Belmont Park epitomized class. Saratoga was about history and charm. Aqueduct had not yet deteriorated into the eyesore that it is today.

Things change. Other racing circuits have risen; OTB, with the way it was structured, did innumerable damage to New York racing. The Vanderbilts don't own horses anymore. But these shouldn't be excuses, and maybe that's exactly what they have become. Somewhere along the way, New York racing lowered its standards, which began an inexorable decline. Being the very best no longer mattered.

This began way back in 1976 when the inner dirt track at Aqueduct opened. For the first time, NYRA offered a long season of dreary winter racing and cards filled with cheap, slow horses that belonged at Finger Lakes and not a top-class racetrack. The Bloomingdales of racing restocked its shelves and became a K-Mart every year for five months.

At least once that was over you still had Belmont and Saratoga, where NYRA racing was pretty much still NYRA racing. In time, that changed, too. Understanding that races with large fields normally out-handle races with small fields, NYRA pretty much stopped caring about quality. The idea became to get as many horses in the starting gate as possible and the best way to do that was to card as many cheap races as possible. They gave us $16,000 maiden claimers, $15,000 claimers for horses who have never won two races and all sorts of other rock-bottom events that would have been considered unacceptable only a few years ago.

Unable to spend an adequate amount of money on its facilities because of political roadblocks, NYRA also had to take shortcuts when it came to its tracks, particularly Aqueduct. The Big A is so dirty and in such a state of disrepair that NYRA Board Member Leonard Riggio said he will no longer attend the races there.

So this is where we're at. There's too much racing, way too much bad racing, Belmont is worn and Aqueduct is in terrible condition. The NYRA brand doesn't stand for what it used to. It's not even close.

With a new Board and a slew of problems, the New York Association is at a crossroads and David Skorton, Flay, Riggio and the rest can take it in one direction or the other.

A never-ending racing schedule with lots of bad races with big fields might just make NYRA more money than a less-is-more option.

Perhaps what NYRA has done over recent years makes sense, at least from a bottom-line standpoint. A never-ending racing schedule with lots of bad races with big fields might just make NYRA more money than a less-is-more option. I don't know.

But I strongly suspect that it has backfired. In his restaurants Flay may have made more money in the short-term had he chosen to go with cheaper, less tasty cuts of meat. But he is a smart businessman, knows that the Bobby Flay name means excellence and chooses to serve his customers nothing but exquisite meals. That philosophy has made him wildly successful and, I assume, wealthy. He wants the same for the New York Racing Association because he believes in unwaveringly high standards and knows that's a guaranteed recipe for success. NYRA used to be to racing what Flay's restaurants are to dining. Now it's more like a Denny's.

The racetracks, in particular Aqueduct, have to be fixed up. That will likely happen now that Skorton is there, which means things can start getting done. Another project that should be on the front burner is the downsizing of Belmont, a massive structure built for another era. Its emptiness creates an atmosphere that is a turn-off for potential and existing fans.

More importantly, NYRA has to cut back significantly on its racing schedule, which is the only way it can cut out the worst races and go back to offering a first class product day-in and day-out. Ending winter racing, four-day-a-week schedules at Belmont and five-day-a-week schedules at Saratoga are all issues that need to be seriously explored. With so much money now available for purses due to the slots money from the Aqueduct casino, there's no reason why a NYRA track should ever run some of the races it now runs.

The NYRA Board is an impressive group and Skorton is no doubt a very smart man. Better yet, this group seems committed and it seems driven. The choices it makes will shape New York racing for years to come. May it make the right decisions.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com