Flay, the Manhattan-born restaurateur and Food Network TV star, has enjoyed success as a thoroughbred owner through a love of the sport born as a boy at Saratoga, NYRA's jewel. His interest was more than real when he heard Gov. Andrew Cuomo was looking for some racing enthusiasts to help overhaul the association last year.
In 2010, Flay's 2-year-old More Than Real won the $1-million Juvenile Fillies Turf at the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs. Flay delivered the keynote address at the National Museum of Racing's 2011 Hall of Fame ceremony.
So when Cuomo announced that he would be forming a temporary, publicly controlled board to transform scandal-scarred NYRA, Flay put aside his barbecue tongs and reached out to help out.
"I own horses and, more importantly, I'm a fan of the game," the 48-year-old Flay said earlier this week from Los Angeles. "When Governor Cuomo decided to reorganize the board, I submitted my name for consideration."
Asked if he was around horses much as a youngster, Flay said: "I was not. I'm a native New Yorker. I grew up on the sidewalks of New York. The only way I could get close to a horse was at a racetrack. Saratoga -- it's magical. I was trying to describe Saratoga the other day in terms of what it is to NYRA. The description I came up with is it's a supermodel that keeps getting prettier and prettier.
"There's magic to it. It's a place I've gone back to every single year since I was 15 or 16 years old."
Flay's appointment was announced in October as part of a 17-member reorganization board that will serve a three-year term. David Skorton, president of Cornell University, was named chair. The board has already met twice, including last week, and plans to tackle the uncertain future of racing and gaming at Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct.
"I think this is going to be a board of action," Flay said.
In one of its first acts, the board last week approved a reduction of the Aqueduct winter / spring meet by six scheduled live racing days in the name of equine safety.
"Listen," the animated Flay said. "This is a game that begins with the horse and ends with the horse. In the last meeting, the biggest topic was horse safety. We're really concentrating on that more than anything else because that's one of the most important things we have to contend with."
Flay said he owns "a couple dozen" horses at the moment. But he understands his expertise is more in the kitchen than the stable.
"I feel that the place I can help most is to give the racing fan a better experience because I come from the food and beverage side of things," he said. "I'm looking to make sure that we can better our programs in terms of the customer experience."
Flay, an Iron Chef on Food Network's popular "Iron Chef America," burst on to the culinary scene in the early 1990s with his top Manhattan restaurant Mesa Grill. His burgeoning Bobby's Burger Palace franchise has 13 locations, including two on Long Island (at the Roosevelt Field and Smith Haven malls).
Flay might also be able to teach NYRA a thing or two about showmanship. He is the star of multiple shows on Food Network and Cooking Channel -- "Bobby's Dinner Battle" and "Brunch @ Bobby's" are the current shows airing with new episodes -- and he was in Los Angeles to film season eight of "The Next Food Network Star."
His meatball-themed "Throwdown With Bobby Flay" at Maroni's in Northport in 2007 was a memorable episode of that show. (Grandma Maroni's 100-year-old recipe won.)
So how is Flay going to find time to make the NYRA position work when he has such a full plate already?
"The NYRA board thing is obviously -- I don't look at it as a job," he said. "I'm passionate about the things I feel like I know about: customer service and making it a better place for fans to go. In the big picture, we want to make everything better than it is today."
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