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NYRA Announces Resignation Of President And CEO Chris Kay

Former NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay speaks at a podium (file photo)
Lucas Willard
Former NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay speaks at a podium (file photo)

The New York Racing Association has named an interim leader after the resignation of President and CEO Chris Kay.

NYRA, which oversees thoroughbred racing at Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga, announced the resignation of President and CEO Chris Kay Wednesday.

Though the organization did not provide a reason for Kay’s departure, the Daily Racing Form first reported the NYRA board pushed Kay out after he used NYRA employees to work at his Saratoga County home.

Kay, who has held executive positions at companies including Toys “R” Us and Universal Parks & Resorts, arrived at NYRA in 2013.

At the time, the organization was in poor fiscal shape and had weathered a betting scandal, leading to the ouster of NYRA’s former President and CEO, Charles Hayward. Hayward has continued to publicly maintain his innocence. 

Kay led the organization during years of state control before it its ultimate reprivatization.

The news of Kay’s departure has drawn reaction across the racing industry and New York state politics, though NYRA board members hailing from Saratoga Springs did not respond to interview requests.

Democratic state Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner represents Saratoga Springs and is a member of the Racing and Wagering committee.

“Well, I’ll tell you I was stunned and then saddened to read the news that he had resigned, “ said Woerner.

Woerner said Kay helped “right the ship” with respect to NYRA’s finances. It was during his tenure that the organization returned to profitability.

“Not all the decisions he made, obviously, were successful or were happily embraced by the community, but you can’t really argue with the value of having a stable and a profitable NYRA,” said Woerner.

With access to more funding, thanks in part to an earlier agreement to redirect cash from video lottery terminals at Aqueduct to NYRA, the organization under Kay made big investments in its facilities.

Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, points to some of the projects Kay oversaw.

“Whether it was the Stretch last year that was opened, or the opening this summer of the 1863 Club, and certainly he’s got an aggressive plan that’s being implemented right now dealing with the improvements with the backstretch housing. And all of those combined are going to make a huge impact on Saratoga for years to come, and that’s a result of his leadership,” said Shimkus.

Not everyone was happy with Kay’s style. Some objected to new building developments at the tradition-steeped Saratoga Race Course. Admission prices were raised and some racing dates were shifted. Those are just some examples.

And the horse racing industry and its fans are passionate about their sport.

Kay did not come from racing but from business.

Mike Kane, a longtime horse racing journalist in the Capital Region, said that grated some fans.

“He’d stand up at a press conference and say things and you’d think, ‘How could this guy not be prepared to say some of these things in public?’ And that happened. And I think that rubs people the wrong way,” said Kane.

NYRA named Chief Revenue Officer David O’Rourke to fill Kay’s position in the interim.

Republican Daphne Jordan, who serves on the Senate Racing and Wagering Committee, released a statement saying she looks forward to working with O’Rourke.

Todd Shimkus of the Saratoga County Chamber is familiar with O’Rourke. But like everyone else involved in the Saratoga meet, he is anxious to find out if rumored plans to extend the schedule will come to fruition.  

“He tells things like they are, he knows the racing industry, he knows how special it is, so my sense is the transition here is going to be smooth. Perhaps the only things we need to know at this point for the community is when opening day is going to be,” said Shimkus.

NYRA's statement issued Wednesday is posted below:

The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) Board of Directors today announced that it has accepted the resignation of NYRA CEO & President Chris Kay, effectively immediately.

To ensure continuity of operations, David O'Rourke, NYRA's Senior Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer, has been named interim CEO.

O'Rourke joined NYRA in 2008 as Director of Financial Planning. Since 2011, O'Rourke has been responsible for NYRA's business development strategies across a range of disciplines including industry relations, simulcast markets and contracts, television and ADW operations, and capital projects.

Kay was named President and CEO in 2013. Under his direction, NYRA improved the quality and safety of racing operations; enhanced the overall guest experience; and was returned to private control.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.