Christopher Kay Named New President and CEO of NYRA
By Ashley Herriman
Christopher Kay was named President and CEO of The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) following unanimous approval by its Board of Directors at a meeting on Tuesday, June 18. The appointment is effective as of July 1.
Kay, 60, most recently served as Chief Operating Officer for The Trust for Public Land, where he oversaw the operations of the land conservation organization’s headquarters and 37 field offices. Prior to that, Kay was a consultant to Universal Parks & Resorts, serving as its Managing Director of International Business Development. From 2001-2006, Kay served as the Chief Operating Officer for Toys 'R' Us, a Fortune 200 international company, and prior to that he was the retailer's Executive Vice President of Operations and General Counsel. Kay was also a minority owner of Orlando's AA baseball team and a member of the ownership group that sought to obtain the first MLB franchise in Florida.
Kay is a graduate of the University of Missouri and of the Duke University School of Law.
“After a careful search involving many highly qualified candidates, we are delighted to select Chris as our new President and CEO,” said NYRA Chair David J. Skorton. “His wide range of expertise and skills—including experience in the legal, regulatory and corporate governance environments—will serve him extremely well in his new position at NYRA.”
“Chris’s unique blend of experience in retail, theme parks, sports and legal helped set him apart during this extensive search,” said NYRA Board member and Chair of the Nominations and Governance Committee Michael Del Giudice. “We look forward to working with him as NYRA moves forward in the months and years ahead.”
“I am confident that we have found the right person to lead NYRA forward,” said Board Member Stuart S. Janney III, who was also a member of the search committee for the vacant CEO position. “Throughout his career, Chris has demonstrated the type of leadership and strategic vision so crucial to NYRA’s future success.”
“Chris has a thorough understanding of the need to develop and drive brand strategies in a competitive and ever-changing environment,” said Board member Jane Rosenthal, who was also a member of the CEO search committee. “He supported and enhanced the Toys ‘R’ Us brand in every country in which it did business and sought to introduce the Universal Studios theme park brand to new countries as its Managing Director.”
“Though he has had no direct involvement with thoroughbred racing, Chris is familiar with the sport and will make great use of the outstanding team in place that has successfully guided NYRA through the past month and a half—a period that included the 145thBelmont Stakes,” said Board and search committee member Bobby Flay. “Chris’s arrival will bring new ideas and synergies to our organization that will benefit NYRA, horsemen and fans, alike.”
“We were fortunate to choose from an abundance of fine candidates, but Chris’s business and leadership skills stamped him as our first preference,” said Board and search committee member Earle Mack. “I know the Board and others will enjoy working with Chris once he takes over.”
“I’m honored by the confidence expressed in me today by the NYRA Board,” said Kay. “Thoroughbred racing is an important part of the lives of so many—including the hundreds of thousands of fans who have loyally supported us through the years. I will work hard to earn their trust and respect as we embark upon an extremely important chapter of NYRA’s history. Working with the talented professionals at NYRA and its dedicated and experienced Board, I anticipate an exciting and successful future for our sport.”
The NYRA Board retained the services of the executive search firm RSR Partners to assist in the filling of the President and CEO position.
Post-Board Meeting Quotes from New NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay and Board Chair David Skorton
Q: What made this job attractive to you?
Chris Kay:“There were a number of factors. Number one was the fact we have some of the finest racetracks in America under NYRA. Number two, as you heard today, a tremendous Board. Number three, the locations are fantastic. Saratoga is beautiful and New York City is the best city in the world. And, number four, strong, passionate fans. So when you say ‘what do you need going forward?’ those are the four fundamental, foundational blocks for great success, so that was very attractive to me.”
Q: Can you talk about your background and/or experience in racing as a fan or otherwise?
Chris Kay:“I first went to a racetrack [Cahokia Downs, Alorton, IL] when I was 19 years old and fell in love with it, and went there every summer, frequently. I loved the experience. Later in life, as an attorney, I was part of a firm that represented people that owned stables in South Carolina and in Kentucky. And, in fact, I also developed a relationship with a friend of mine who owned a couple of horses, actually several very good ones – Don Dizney – who was suggesting I become the minority owner in some of those horses, like Wekiva Springs. I instead chose to go the baseball route, hoping we would land a major league team [in Orlando, Fl.] with a minor league team. But I have enjoyed the racing experience for decades.”
Q: Regarding Kay’s experience with land preservation and the future of Aqueduct Racetrack.
Chris Kay:“The organization [I worked for most recently] was the Trust for Public Lto and. It is a fantastic organization [that has] been able to acquire over three million acres of land converted into local, state, or federal parks. As far as the issue of Aqueduct is concerned, David [Skorton] and the committee say it’s one of the things we should look at.”
Q: Were there any apprehensions about taking the job?
Chris Kay:“No. Number one, it’s a challenge, and the opportunity to do better, and those are two very important things. I kid you not…this is a world-class Board, and the opportunity to work with them to create new solutions was very attractive. I want to learn from mistakes of the past, but there is so much talent around that table that we can create a future for decades to come for success in horse racing in this state, and that was a very compelling reason for me to express interest in the job.”
Q: Any top priorities?
Chris Kay:“Well, I haven’t even started yet, but I think number one, the Board has provided us with a three-year strategic plan, so I’m going to follow that strategic plan, and execute it. And, to summarize that, number one is going to be to enhance the guest experience for our racing fans and to recruit others to become new racing fans. The second is the re-privatization; to work with the kind of people we have at the table and with state government, and the third is just to improve the quality of racing and purses at every racetrack we operate.”
Q: Regarding the future of casino gaming in NYS.
Chris Kay: “I’m aware of the conversations [in Albany]. I do not have a position to express today. I am comforted by the fact that Governor Cuomo has selected a great Board and has expressed an interest in making sure that horse racing is very successful today and for years to come. I look forward to working with this Board and with state government to make sure that happens.”
Q: On hiring on an individual with a strong racing background to complement Kay’s leadership and management experience.
Chris Kay: “We are going to look at that. Clearly there are some very talented people in racing [and] to bring in someone like you describe I think could be very beneficial. “
NYRA Board Chair David J. Skorton on the selection of Chris Kay:
Chair David J. Skorton:“We looked at three big categories of candidates. Some were people who were extraordinarily experienced directly in thoroughbred racing. Some were turnaround specialists. Third were people who were very, very talented leaders and managers. At the end of the day, the search committee, number one, unanimously, thought it was very important to have someone with leadership and management experience. I’d like to say that a lot of problems NYRA has experienced in the past have not been because of lack of racing savvy, but because of lack of government savvy. That’s my point of view.
“Chris was a dream candidate for us because he cared about racing. He loves it. He’s been doing it since he was a young person and wants it to succeed, but basically he is a very strong manager and leader from different types of organizations – for profit, not-for-profit, [he’s worked in] organizations that had to deal in the governmental sector. We wanted someone who is experienced in making that connection, in the public-private partnership as opposed to the public-private war, and I think we’re going to go in the right direction.
“I’ve mentioned before the two huge, mega jobs of the new Board: One was to get new leadership and management, and I emphasize both leadership and management. And then secondly, to look toward re-privatization, however long that takes. That’s going to take some long-term vision.”
Q: Asked about the CEO salary and how bonuses will be determined.
Chair David J. Skorton: “We have a balanced score card that we’ve developed. If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s a way to assess performance based on some quantitative metrics, like finances and things like that, there’s also qualitative metrics. I want to be very public about this: this is not a guaranteed extra $250,000. We made that very clear to Chris during the recruitment process. This is going to be performance-based and I’m a hard grader.