PAUL POST, The Saratogian
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The New York Racing Association on Wednesday approved a $155.1 million budget for 2014 that includes admission and parking price hikes at Saratoga Race Course and Belmont Park.
The hikes are part of a strategy to run the racetracks in the black without relying on slots revenue from the casino at Aqueduct Racetrack.
This year, without that slots revenue, NYRA would be facing a $10.5 million deficit. However, President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Kay said the firm can realize a $250,000 profit in 2014 by instituting a long list of cost-cutting and revenue enhancement measures.
"We have looked throughout the entire organization at everything," he told board members meeting in Manhattan. "Change is difficult. It’s obvious that change is needed."
The contract under which NYRA operates the state-owned tracks at Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct Racetrack include slots revenue as a necessary budget component. However, one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s main directives to the 17-member board, which currently has 12 state appointees, is to get NYRA in the black and to return the board to private hands by the end of 2015.
CEO Kay said raising admission prices is expected to generate about $2 million.
However, the husband of longtime horse owner Marylou Whitney, John Hendrickson, a non-voting special adviser to the board on matters relating to Saratoga, said NYRA stands to make more money while "pissing off the people (fans) that are helping us."
"Right now we don’t need this controversy," Hendrickson said. "I think it’s the wrong thing to do, 100 percent."
Board member Charles Wait of Saratoga Springs voted for the price hike. He has previously said it’s part of an equation needed to make NYRA a self-sustaining operation.
The board was under a legal deadline to adopt the budget.
However, Chairman David Skorton, in somewhat of a compromise move, asked Kay’s management team to conduct a formal marketing analysis of the fee hike that will provide a more fact-based look at possible impacts, both positive and negative.
Plans call for raising general admission fees from $3 to $5 while clubhouse admission would rise from $5 to $8. Admission gets you into the gate; a seat in the stands is extra. The last price hike was in 2005. Comparable non-New York tracks such as Del Mar, Arlington Park and Santa Anita all charge at least $5 for general admission and up to $8-$10 for the clubhouse.
Board member Barry Ostrager said raising prices will cost NYRA money in the long run.
"We will lose handle from people who will elect to wager off-track as opposed to on-track," he said.
NYRA gets a greater percentage of money bet on-track versus off-track outlets.
However, Kay said, "Attendance is not the key."
The more important factor, he said, is what people actually spend when they go the track. Despite a slight attendance drop at Saratoga in 2013, sales of food, beverage and souvenirs all increased substantially, he said.
The fee hikes won’t take effect until the spring Belmont Park meet, which begins in late April. Some board members said NYRA should closely monitor the impact of price hikes there and react accordingly if there’s a significant downturn in attendance and handle.
"People are going to vote with their wallets and pocketbooks," board member Bobby Flay said.
The next board meeting is scheduled for March 5. If public opposition is strong enough, the board could move to rescind the increases at that time, before they go into effect.