In pursuit of new fans, NYRA seeks night racing at Belmont

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The New York Racing Association would like to conduct night racing at Belmont Park, believing it could stimulate business and create new racing fans.

A bill was passed in the New York Senate in late June that would permit NYRA to conduct night racing twice a week at the Belmont spring and fall meets. However, similar legislation did not get through the Assembly. NYRA is hoping to get that done during the 2018 legislative session, but night racing likely would not come to fruition until the fall of 2018 at the earliest.

Chris Kay, NYRA's president and chief executive, laid out his reasons for wanting night racing on Thursday at the annual pre-Saratoga opening meeting of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce held at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Kay stressed that there are no plans to conduct night racing at Saratoga.

"The reason we need the ability to have night racing at Belmont is fairly obvious - it's to attract new generations of fans," Kay said. "People comment when they come to Belmont on the fact that we don't have many people there on a Thursday afternoon. If they're like you and me, they're working. People comment that we need more young people to come to the track. I agree 100 percent. Where are young people? They're at work.

"What we are requesting is nothing more than to operate our business in the same way that the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox operate their business during the spring, summer, and fall," Kay added. "They have their sporting events in the evening on weekdays."

Kay said that representatives of the Standardbred industry voiced objection to the idea of NYRA being allowed to have night racing, fearing it would adversely impact business, particularly at Yonkers Raceway.

Kay said language in the Senate bill offered to stagger post times so that the two tracks would not run races at the same time.

"Many people think this could add handle to the folks at Yonkers, but whether it does or not is secondary," Kay said. "We believe the most important issue is the public has the right to choose.

"In every other sport, there is the right for the public to choose what they want to watch. Why should the trotters have a monopoly on night racing?"

Rick Violette, a horse trainer and president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said night racing is "a worthwhile attempt to see if we can add to our market. Be careful how often we're going to do it. Churchill Downs had initial success, but the more they did it, it was a death spiral."

During his 30-minute speech to the Chamber of Commerce, Kay talked about how NYRA spent a lot of money to upgrade the playground at Saratoga so that young people have a place to go and a positive experience during the races. In seeking local businesses to help underwrite the cost, Kay called the playground renovation "as important and as strategic a capital improvement as we will ever make when it comes to the sustainability of our organization and, therefore, the sustainability of the Saratoga economy."

In a brief question-and-answer session, Kay was asked about the possibility of the Breeders' Cup returning to Belmont Park for the first time since 2005.

Kay noted that in two of the last five years, Belmont Park was impacted by Hurricane Sandy and a snowstorm on the weekend that the Breeders' Cup would have been held. He said NYRA would have to be able to heat the building and hinted that that could be part of a larger renovation project.

"We are looking at ways to upgrade and enhance the current Belmont Park property to provide just that," Kay said.

When asked about the possibility of a raid of the Saratoga backstretch looking for undocumented workers by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, Kay said NYRA would not prevent ICE from doing its job.

"If ICE shows up, do I block ICE at the door and say to a federal authority, 'You can't come in?' " No," Kay said. "I'm going to abide by all the laws."

According to the Albany Times Union, ICE arrested 27 people in Saratoga Springs in May and June for being in the country illegally. It was unclear if any of those people were connected with the track.