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O'Rourke and NYRA Face Important Changes in 2020

17th January, 19:15

Safety initiatives a main focus; renovation work at Belmont unlikely this year.

David O'Rourke understands that 2020 will be a crucial year for the New York Racing Association.

Yet NYRA's president and CEO also believes the importance of what happens in the coming year extends far beyond the borders of New York state.

"This is a pivotal year for the industry as a whole," O'Rourke said. "We're all in this together, and we need to get more collaboration and cooperation."

It was nearly a year ago that O'Rourke was handed the keys to three New York racetracks that handle more than $2 billion a year and form the industry's leading circuit. He was named interim CEO Jan. 23 when Christopher Kay stepped down, and was appointed CEO and president March 26.

Since then, O'Rourke's first year on the job has placed the 46-year-old executive at the center of a year like no other for Thoroughbred racing when a horrendous rash of fatalities at Santa Anita Park placed the sport under intense national scrutiny, and paramount importance was placed on safety initiatives.

"For the industry, it was a year for inflection," O'Rourke said, "and that's a positive thing moving forward."

O'Rourke and NYRA head into a new year looking to build off what they started in 2019, items such as the creation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition comprised of several of the industry's major players and a new format at Saratoga Race Course, which included a five-day week and less time between races.

At the same time, 2020 promises to bring into focus new regulations at NYRA for the use of Lasix and riding crops, while plans for modernizing and winterizing Belmont Park will be formulated as part of what might be a five-year process in which the grandstand may not be touched until 2021 at the earliest.

It's surely a full plate for O'Rourke, who spent 11 years with NYRA -- six as chief revenue officer -- before taking on the gargantuan responsibility of running the company.

"There's a lot more attention now than in my previous jobs for NYRA," he said. "I was able to broker content deals before, but in the CEO job, there's a lot more public exposure than I'm used to. Saratoga is like drinking from a fire hose in that respect, but now that I have some experience under my belt, it won't be as intimidating."

That experience will come in handy in 2020, especially in dealing with his fellow racing executives in the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition.

In November, NYRA joined with Breeders' Cup Limited, Churchill Downs Incorporated, Keeneland Association, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, and The Stronach Group to form the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition. In December, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, and University of Kentucky joined the fold.

The purpose was to bring together the sport's most powerful entities to create reforms and operational standards for the industry in areas such as medications, diagnostic technology, shock-wave therapy, licensing criteria, the collection of racing surface data, out-of-competition testing, and riding crop rules.

"Last year was absolutely a wake-up call for everyone," O'Rourke said. "I've been in more meetings about safety than anything else, which is a first. It's no longer talking about interstate simulcasting. The No. 1 conversation is safety and how do we move the ball forward. It's a completely different conversation at my level, which is good."

While the goals of the coalition are laudable, O'Rourke believes the group's success will hinge on the commitment of members to put aside individual needs and work in harmony for the good of the sport.

"It's getting everyone in a room and getting them to commit to change. The industry is not used to it, but what you see is a group of tracks trying to make changes in a cohesive manner, which is much better for the sport overall," O'Rourke said. "Everyone will not like every decision, but we all have to live with them. It's hard to reform by consensus. When you have a coalition, there's a governing structure to it, and things are proposed. When we vote, not everyone will win every vote, but you have to abide by it. That's my goal for this group.

"I feel good about the progress we've made. What will be key in the new year is what kind of structure will be placed underneath the coalition. You have a group of tracks, and as we put changes or new standards forward, we have the beginning of what can be a trendsetter for the industry. I'd like to see more structure underneath it, and, from NYRA's standpoint, for it to be more aggressive. It's just starting, so that's not a criticism, it's a hope. If we have standards, you want to rely on people who specialize in those areas so that the rules are well thought out by the professionals on the ground, and then they are brought to executives like myself and we can achieve standardization."

In April, NYRA was part of a consortium of racetracks that agreed to ban race-day use of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix in 2-year-old races in 2020 and graded stakes in 2021.

With the start of 2-year-old racing in New York about three months away, O'Rourke does not expect the Lasix ban to create much of a problem for horsemen.

"I don't think it will impact 2-year-old racing much at all," O'Rourke said. "There might be a few horses who will need time off because they bleed, but I think it's the first step. The United States has been behind the rest of the world with medications, and this is step one in getting us in line with the rest of the world."

O'Rourke said NYRA is also formulating regulations for the use of riding crops and should announce the new rules soon.

"We're working internally on a whip rule," he said. "What you see now is a lot of jurisdictions coming out with different rules, and it's our preference to work with the Safety Coalition and get more uniformity. Like any changes we make, we'll be aggressive, but we'll also be prudent, and whatever practices we adopt will be supported by data."

While safety has been a dominant issue in the past year, O'Rourke and his team are also facing decisions about the use of its downstate racetracks that will impact New York racing for decades to come.

At the moment, what was once a parking area behind the Belmont Park grandstand is now in the midst of becoming an arena for the New York Islanders of the NHL in the fall of 2021. When plans for the arena were announced in 2017, there was speculation by Kay that NYRA would use the same construction window to winterize Belmont Park and make it a year-round home for racing outside of summers at Saratoga.

While O'Rourke believes having two racetracks (Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack) that are about 10 miles apart is not a viable option for the future, construction plans for Belmont Park are still being formulated, and any major changes to the facility are at least a year away -- and maybe longer.

"It's a pretty logical end game when you have two facilities eight to 10 miles apart, and one is winterized and the main one is not. Belmont Park is very large, and there's plenty of room to adjust the scope of the building. The end game is one track. Initially, I wasn't sure of that, but after looking at the overhead of having two facilities, it makes sense. The scale of Belmont allows you to do so many things, so I think for downstate racing, we need one plant and it's Belmont. It's just a matter of timing. The plans are well along the way, and we are far along in the concept of racing year-round at Belmont Park, but we also have to decide what we do with Aqueduct. What do we do with that piece of property? There are high-level conversations that need to go on."

In the interim, NYRA might address its turf courses at Belmont Park and begin the renovation project with infrastructure work in the coming year.

"I don't think you will see us working on the (Belmont Park) building this year. You will not see major construction, just work on infrastructure. A formal announcement of our plans could come in the next year or two once we get approvals," O'Rourke said. "There might be an initial focus on the tracks themselves. The turf courses can use some work. They have not been addressed in a few decades, and that might be the initial focus because there's (arena) construction literally behind our main building. There will be infrastructure work you can't see, like north lot drainage work that will impact the west (infield) pond, which will serve as irrigation for the turf courses. We need to do that before we work on the tracks."

Another decision involves whether NYRA will use the expansive Belmont Park infield to offset the space in the backyard that has been lost to a future home for a hotel and shops. If it does, tunnels to the infield must be built before work on the turf courses begins.

"We have to decide if we want to build tunnels to the infield because there's 45 acres of space there. You don't want to work on the turf course and then decide we want to build tunnels, so we have about a year to decide on the tunnels," O'Rourke said.

As for Saratoga, the new five-day week, with Monday and Tuesday dark days, and an earlier start to the meet was well received as reflected in a record handle of $705,343,949, even though one Saturday card was canceled because of excessive heat.

"The weather was great, and the five-day format worked," O'Rourke said. "We went to Saratoga in October and met with the business community. We opened it to dialogue, and it became obvious that we should stick with the current five-day structure. It worked out very well for the town, business community, and us with the record handle."

One interesting change during the second half of the Saratoga meet involved shortening the time between races and ending cards about 35 minutes earlier, a move 180 degrees removed from some tracks' post time drags that stretch the time between races.

From July 11-Aug. 4, a nine-race card at the Spa ended at approximately 5:54 p.m., while 10-race cards finished at 6:25 p.m. and 11-race cards at 6:55 p.m. There was generally 36 minutes between races.

But with revised post times from Aug. 7-Sept. 2, nine-race cards ended at 5:18 p.m., 10-race cards at 5:50 p.m. and 11-race cards at 6:22 p.m. The time between races also dipped to about 32 minutes.

"When we sped up the post times, it seemed to help the handle, which is counterintuitive to what's happening in the industry," O'Rourke said.

After last year's successful opening of the three-story, climate-controlled 1863 Club at the base of the clubhouse turn, changes for the 2020 Saratoga meet will be much more subtle.

"Some hospitality areas will be brushed up a bit, and some historical architecture will be brought back," O'Rourke said. "With the help of (NYRA board member and owner) Michael Dubb, there will be a day care center for backstretch workers. We'll also complete the Marylou Whitney Pavilion and add tablets in the clubhouse box seats."

The new year will also see NYRA increase its Eclipse Award-winning live television coverage to 700 hours via "America's Day At The Races" and "Saratoga Live" on Fox Sports 2 and push for the introduction of sports betting in New York and its availability at NYRA tracks.

"We are looking forward to sports betting. It broadens the market for us. It gives a store we can sell our content in. Since I've been in the sport, the handle has been flat or inflationary at best. There hasn't been an inflection point for the industry to move that number, but I think sports betting can do that," O'Rourke said. "We've been trying to build the assets needed to perform in that new environment, and the Fox show is key to that. Business is shifting to online, and everything we are doing at NYRA Bets and with the Fox show, it's all pointed toward what's the next generational move for our product. I think sports wagering platforms will be a huge focus for us."