Lee grabs reins to help save NYRA franchise

John Lee held the New York Racing Association's (NYRA) image together during a nail-biting race that went down to the wire.

John Lee held the New York Racing Association's (NYRA) image together during a nail-biting race that went down to the wire.

On February 13, John Lee sat in his office in Ozone Park, Queens, as noon came and went. As director of communications and media relations for NYRA, he was waiting for news that the state legislation had passed a measure to keep the beleaguered and bankrupt organization in business.

Noon was the final deadline, after two extensions, for the renewal of NYRA's franchise to operate horse racing in New York, and the Republican-led Senate was still locked in debate. If the right news didn't come by the end of the day, he and the rest of NYRA's employees would be out of a job, and the local horse racing community would be thrown into chaos.

Lee has been in the role, his first leading a communications team, for less than a year. It had been a wild ride from the beginning. He started in May 2007 at the peak of racing season, when Triple Crown races - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes - are all held.

The week after Labor Day, the NYRA and Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D-NY) announced a memorandum of understanding, which laid framework for a franchise extension and stated that NYRA would give up its claims to the land at its three racetracks - Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga. However, state senate Republicans opposed the memorandum and the issue further complicated an already tense relationship between the governor and state senate majority leader Joseph Bruno.

"It was tough to be stuck in the middle of something between the governor and the senator. And we were definitely in the middle," Lee says. "It was [an] unprecedented situation in the way that this organization was set up, in its relationship with the state. It was completely uncharted territory."

At the toughest of times, Lee admits that it was hard to keep a low profile. "We veered about as close to a 'no comment' phase as I'm comfortable with," he recalls.

Add to that attack ads from rivals eager to take over the franchise, bankruptcy procedures, uninformed journalists coming late to the story, lobbyists, rallying staff, and a complicated relationship with New York City Off Track Betting. Throughout those tense months, Lee was the level-headed public voice of the NYRA.

"You had to work on two tracks," Lee notes. "There was this complete crisis mode, hunkering down, surviving the onslaught. Then you also had to still be doing horse racing, pitching jockeys, providing the racing press with their information."

"I can't think of another [racing] PR person who's had to do as much as John has, from political to legal aspects," says Bob Curran, VP of corporate communications at the Jockey Club, a registry of thoroughbred horses. "It seems like he was dealing with a lot of media, from the regular racing press to the regional and even national press. Since he's been in the position, most of what he's done is gut reaction, and he's done a good job."

That gut reaction developed from several years as a journalist and nearly 17 with NYRA in various positions, most recently as director of broadcasting, overseeing production done on racetrack premises and the six hours of original content produced every day.
"He's accessible to the media," Curran says. "He's well regarded, especially with the electronic press. His reputation has served him and NYRA well."

Many publications noted that the measure barely passed through the New York legislature and NYRA was awarded a 25-year franchise about three hours after the final deadline. But Lee's exhale of relief was a muted one. "It was back to work," he says.

John Lee

May 2007-present
NYRA, director of comms and media relations

1991-May 2007
NYRA, various posts.
Publicist (1991-1994); senior media coordinator (1994-1996); assistant director of public and media relations (1996-1997); manager of broadcasting (1997- 2002); director of broadcasting (2003-May 2007)

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