07/03/2013 11:10AM

Bob Pandolfo: Making new fans at the Meadowlands

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Jason Settlemoir (left), vice president of racing operations for the Meadowlands, Vernon Downs, and Tioga Downs, with Meadowlands Chairman Jeff Gural.

Jason Settlemoir is the vice president of racing operations for the Meadowlands, Vernon Downs, and Tioga Downs. He's also the general manager of what he calls "the New Meadowlands," new because on Nov. 23, the Meadowlands will reopen with a new grandstand.

This has been a great year for the Meadowlands. The handle on most nights is up more than 30 percent from last year. And right in the middle of the action is the ubiquitous Settlemoir, who roams the track at night checking in on customers and employees.

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“I like to be visible,” Settlemoir said. “Many customers have told us how nice it is to be greeted by members of our management team as they walk through the front doors. For us, customer service is paramount."

Customer service at a racetrack? It must be a misnomer. But no, it's real, and it's happening at the Meadowlands. The track has several options available to service customers, including the Players Club Desk, and comment cards with drop boxes. Customers also can write or e-mail track management.

"We respond to every e-mail or letter we get," Settlemoir said. "I even call customers sometimes. When I tell them that I'm the GM at the Meadowlands, they seem shocked. Chairman Jeff Gural and our management team take feedback seriously. As you know, Pandy, we're even carding some 'Old Style’ sulky races at Tioga based on your correspondence with Mr. Gural."

The Meadowlands also has initiated customer-service classes for employees. "We want our employees to fully understand how we expect customers to be treated,” Settlemoir said. “Our goal is to have racing fans enjoy the entire experience of being at a racetrack."

To that end, the Meadowlands has interactive activities that customers can sign up for as they enter the premises, including paddock tours and the chance to go for a ride in the starting gate.

"In my opinion, the starting gate offers the best views of the track," Settlemoir said. "People can sit in the car, go for a drive, and see how things look to the drivers and horses."

The Meadowlands also has various types of promotions on racing nights. Customers can sign up for Harness Racing Bingo, Diamond Digs, and baseball-ticket giveaways.

The Meadowlands has held several attendance-boosting events. Last month, the track had the popular Jersey Fest, a festival that featured entertainment and various vendors from the state. The camel and ostrich races proved to be popular again this year, and last month the Meadowlands hosted a summer beer festival.

"Obviously, we have to get young fans through the doors so we can build a fan base for the future," Settlemoir said. "But they have to enjoy themselves once they get here, so we offer different types of activities and events to create a great racetrack experience."

I asked Settlemoir how the group-sales segment of the business is doing. Years ago, the Pegasus and Terraces restaurants would do a huge group-sales business. "Group sales is definitely on an upswing," Settlemoir said, "and we're already getting a lot of inquiries about the new restaurants that will open later in the year."

Settlemoir said the new grandstand probably will open for simulcasting "a couple of weeks" early so the staff can get prepped for the Nov. 23 grand opening. Settlemoir is excited about the New Meadowlands. "Bob," he said, "you're going to like what you see."

I can't wait.

Pocono Downs stakes races

I just wanted to mention the big stakes events held at Pocono Downs last Saturday. The $500,000 Max Hempt Final for 3-year-olds, won by Captaintreacherous from post 9, was a great race. In the Ben Franklin Free For All, the rugged Foiled Again grinded out a game nose victory over Pet Rock in another great race.

Captaintreacherous reminds me a little of the 9-year-old Foiled Again. Foiled Again is a horse who tries his heart out and often comes on to win races in which he does not appear to be the quickest horse in the race. Captaintreacherous won the North American Cup and the Hempt in grinding style from off the pace, which isn’t an easy task in today's speed-favoring sport.

Both horses also remind me of a personal favorite, Mr. Big, another great grinder who retired a few years ago. With these classy grinders, all the driver has to do is get the horse within two lengths of the leader at the top of the stretch, and he's done his job. Captaintreacherous and Foiled Again take it from there.

It rained heavily midway through the card Saturday night at Pocono, prior to the stakes races. This probably helped the racing. Pocono, like so many other half-mile and five-eighths harness tracks, has been speed-favoring the past couple of seasons, and a speed bias is not good for racing.

The rain slowed down the track just enough to give the closers and outside posts a better chance. Captaintreacherous won from post 9 and did not go out for the lead. If it hadn't rained, I'm not sure he could have overcome the bias. Track management and track superintendents should take note: Do not try to speed up the track for big events. On the contrary, do whatever you can to slow it down.

Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs will host the Breeders Crown on Saturday, Oct. 19. The track hosted 12 Breeders Crown races in 2010, and it was a great night of racing, but the track was much less speed-biased in 2010. I hope there isn't a speed bias for the big event this year.

Last year, the Breeders’ Cup for Thoroughbred racing was held at Santa Anita, which should be an ideal location for a major racing event. But the track was very speed-favoring over those two days. In my opinion, the speed bias had a strongly negative effect on the event, which was one of the most lackluster Breeders’ Cups I've ever seen.

Any track that hosts such an important racing event has to do everything it can to provide a fair racing surface on which horses are not compromised simply because they don't leave the gate.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories, check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm, or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.