03/28/2012 4:15PM

Sign that driver to a contract?

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Yonkers Raceway | Photo by Derick Giwner

A couple of weeks ago I touched on which drivers would be leaving the Meadowlands to follow their stakes horses at Yonkers Raceway in the Levy and Blue Chip Matchmaker series. Brian Sears, Yannick Gingras and Tim Tetrick all went across the Hudson River for at least one additional night each week. This got me to thinking about how important drivers are and what a track can do to keep them racing at “home.”

I do not have the statistics to back this up, but something tells me that accomplished drivers drive handle. Looking back over the last 20 years of racing you can see many of these trends occurring. In the 1990’s wagering definitely picked up when Walter Case Jr was driving regularly at your track. His live hands and apparent desire to win every race left bettors happy, even if they were usually cashing small tickets on heavy favorites.

Fast forward just a few years when George Brennan elected to make the switch to Yonkers. His arrival clearly brought some bettors with him. With his “Minister of Speed” name in tow and facing perhaps a slightly easier driver colony than at the Meadowlands, Brennan began to win in bunches and the public followed him to the winner’s circle.

So, other than by offering stakes races each day or obscene purses, how do you keep a driver at your track? I have an answer. This solution is certainly not feasible for every track, but what if the track signed the driver to a contract?

How much would it cost to keep Brian Sears in East Rutherford? Let’s assume his horses annually earn $12 million. He gets five percent; or $600,000 each year. My guess is a $30,000 contract to race on 90% of the racing dates would be acceptable, especially since the Meadowlands only races 81 dates per year.  Now Sears would have to make some choices. Does he go to Yonkers for the Levy or the Matchmaker? Does he save some of his 8 days off for the North America Cup and Somebeachsomewhere up at Mohawk Racetrack in Canada?

I’m sure Meadowlands management is saying, “How do we come up with $30k times 3 or 4 to keep the best drivers on the track?” Well, it all comes down to numbers. If the drivers leave and your handle decreases by 30 percent from $2.5 million to $1.75 million, even if you assume only a 3 percent track take on the money, that’s a $22,500 loss in one night.

Now that I have gone through that whole exercise, it would be a good time to tell you that I believe the whole driver issue is complete malarkey. Yes, a few people will stop betting the Meadowlands and wager on Yonkers because they want to follow their favorite driver, but the majority of true handicappers need two things in their drivers: Competence and Familiarity. We (might as well include myself) want guys that will leave no doubt in our minds that they can steer a horse home and think on their feet (tushy) when the moment calls for such a decision. We want drivers we know so there is no guessing on what his/her usual tendencies are and how good of a driver they might be.

Give the handicapper a steady group of drivers and a consistent product and they will bet. How do you think Northfield Park has survived all these years? The quality of horses may be low, but the product is consistent and thus easier for people to embrace. Northfield has been racing the same time with a similar wagering menu for what seems like forever. This is similar to what Monticello Raceway does. Both tracks do a wonderful job of setting up post time to coordinate with other racing action to get the maximum betting dollar. Compare that to the Meadows, which seems to alter their post time on a daily basis practically every week. One week they race Wednesday at 12:55pm; next week no Wednesday; following week post on Wednesday is 6:55pm. Who can keep up with that schedule? It is too confusing.

Wrapping up this week’s ramble and rant, the bottom line is product and consistency. Put a decent number of horses on the track on a daily basis, with drivers that are proven capable and familiar to the normal betting public, and people will bet your product.

That’s my two cents for this week.