I didn't have a good time at Belmont on Saturday. But that doesn't have to be all NYRA's fault. A good part of it was just me. I have to admit that I went in with a bad attitude to start with. As I've written before (ad nauseum I'm sure), I'm not at all a fan of the BIG all-day stakes marathon. As interesting as many of the races were from a sporting standpoint, they're not my preferred races to bet on; so I was rather curmudgeon-y about the whole concept right from the start. And, like our buddy o_crunk noted on his [restricted] Twitter account: The best part about going to the track is that no one is usually there. While I wouldn't totally agree with that sentiment - technology has helped make it possible to soak in the welcome buzz of a crowded track like Saratoga without having to deal much with the actual crowds - The idea you want to go to a track when there's 100k there? LOL, no. (And actually, Saratoga is totally pleasant and manageable even if you have to go to the windows, and even on their most crowded days.)
My main problem on Saturday really was the fact that the technology was not available to me. I don't know if it's NYRA's fault that the cellular and wireless networks were overwhelmed to the point where they became useless to me after around 2PM. But once that happened, my betting day was more or less over. These days, I bring my iPad, handicap with TimeformUS and wager on NYRA Rewards. In theory, I don't have to get up from my chair in the backyard all day. Just like all of the many people who tell me that TimeformUS is really cool but "I'm just used to the Form," well, I'm now just used to doing it my way. But I couldn't on Saturday; and even if I wanted to buy a Form instead - which I didn't/wouldn't/won't - the stands I passed were completely sold out of them by then anyway. I found myself shelling out $6 for an official track program just so I could tell which horses were which; even though I knew all along that the program would ultimately be worthless once California Chrome went down in flames.
This failure in wireless technology also caused some logistical issues for me. I was there quite early to help at a TimeformUS booth we had in the clubhouse from 11:30 until 1, where I spent most of the time dealing with people who dropped by to ask where they could buy the Racing Form. (I directed them to the playground in the far back corner of the backyard.) (Just kidding.) The Head Chef was to join me mid-afternoon via the Long Island Railroad. But when I could no longer consistently send or receive texts or calls, I ended up either at the train depot waiting for her as she waited for a train at Jamaica that she could actually board, or walking back and forth between there and a spot where I could find some cell service. I spent two races doing that.
Truth is, absent the dearth of connectivity, I could have been sufficiently content. The backyard was manageable space-wise (if you don't mind cigar-smoking preppy boys), and had I been able to handicap and wager conveniently (mostly on "regular" races from other tracks), you probably wouldn't be reading this post. Personally, I had no problems getting in or out of the track by car - in fact, the yellow field ($20) had an ingenious new traffic pattern that facilitated a quick exit, and I was home by 7:35 (in time to spend the next four hours being tortured watching the Rangers lose in double overtime. Man, what a day.) (I feel a little bad reading about the people who spent two hours trying to get out; but hey man, you gotta put a little thought, effort and, sometimes, money into figuring that out.) I found a men's room on the second floor of the clubhouse (in some kind of VIP area that I had no problem walking in and out of as I pleased) for which the only line in sight was the women standing inside waiting for a stall. (Nearby, there was a long line for a women's room, and it was a bit humorous I must say seeing the faces of those who looked longingly at the women walking into the men's room, but they JUST COULDN'T bring themselves to do it and not that I can really blame them.) Sure, there was no way I was waiting on any of those food lines, but I was able to obtain at least a little sustenance at the vending machines. M&Ms and Coke can get me through a pretty long period of time.
However, there was no connectivity, so I wasn't content. Without the online wagering option, and with the betting lines in the back far too long for my taste, wagering involved getting up, fighting one's way through the crowd, and heading to one of the upper floors to try and find shorter lines. They were there if you looked for them, to be sure. But after a while, it just wasn't worth the effort. I've written here on several occasions that the Foolish Pleasure - Ruffian match race was the most oppressively crowded track day I've ever endured. That is no longer that case. I made one bet all day.
But look, you get 102,000 in a racetrack, and there are going to be lines, there are going to be tight spots, there are going to be inconveniences. You can't blame everything on NYRA, right? I mean, it's just the nature of the Triple Crown beast.
However.....on the other hand.......
The NYRA Reorganization Board brought in this guy Chris Kay. He knows nothing about racing, nothing about the Triple Crown. He knew some things though, and, we've been told, he knew one thing very well. Hospitality. The Guest Experience. That is what he always talks about.
“The fact is I hope to bring something different to the table that is needed....I would like to see increased fan support here at the tracks and that requires an enhanced guest experience.....I’ve been blessed spending time with Universal Studios, which I think is fantastic with the fan experience. We are going to try to enhance the guest experience for both the core fan and the casual fan.” [New York Daily News]So then, given that this is the man's area of expertise and focus, how about a more unforgiving view:
How could this possibly happen? They've had months on end to plan this and, though the enhanced stakes schedule was a (losing) bet against a Triple Crown, it was always a possibility. How can it be that the track seemed distinctly more crowded than the two other days in which there were more than 100,000 "guests," supposedly more than 120,000 in once case? How could they run out of food and drink? How could it be that we're reading complaints about pre-paid parking passes not being accepted? And about reserved seating sections being overrun by people who didn't pay $100+ for the privilege? Given the way that NYRA encouraged people to pay extra in service charges to buy admission in advance on Ticketmaster, how could it be that at times there were long lines for ticket holders while those paying in cash were able to walk right in? It seemed to me that there were actually less porto-potties spread around the backyard than last year, a non-Triple Crown event. Last year, there was a row of a half dozen or so diverse food trucks lining the walkway opposite the paddock; this year, they weren't there, replaced by a basic burgers/dogs/beers stand for which there weren't even any lines, just a mass of people. Why were the walking vendors only selling cans of putrid Coors Light (for $10)? Where was the much ballyhooed "entertainment?" Oh, was that LL Cool J that I barely heard on the PA system? Where was Bernie Williams (like I really care)? Oh, you mean, he was only playing in one of the VIP area$ ? Why did both the Head Chef and I get the distinct feeling that there was actually less of an effort than in past years, before Mr. Hospitality came to town?
People lose their jobs over things like this, man. Especially if it's due to a failure in an area that he/she has specifically emphasized. Even if it's not all their fault, it kinda sticks, like when the mayor is blamed because two feet of snow made it impossible to make all the streets passable the next morning. Could NYRA have done anything to boost the cellular and wireless service? I don't know. I don't really know if the train snafu after the races has anything to do with NYRA as opposed to the MTA. Since the latter had clearly warned of two hour waits, why didn't they have a slew of shuttle buses at the ready to at least get people to Jamaica, where both the LIRR and the subway were options? However, considering all of the other well-publicized problems that were under NYRA's watch, they will get stuck with the bill for that too. And this mess has wider implications than just some pissed off people waiting for a train. The bad publicity over it is not going to go away soon. We'll surely hear politicians who are delighted to have NYRA as a whipping boy once again. If there was really any chance of the Breeders' Cup ever coming back to Belmont, you can likely forget about that for now.
Chris Kay had spoken about cutting off admission sales at a certain point, in order to be able to enhance the guest experience. That probably would have been a good idea. The problem was that he mentioned it only in passing, and far too late to be able to implement it. That's just a lack of decisiveness, not a good quality for somebody in charge of running an operation like the New York Racing Association. I dunno, man....I wouldn't want to be Chris Kay when it comes time for the next NYRA board meeting. I'd think he's gonna have to answer a lot of questions. And if I were he, I'd be taking another look at, and thanking my lawyers and lucky stars for, all of those generous severance clauses that are contained in his contract.