09/20/2013 4:20PM

Del Mar had summer of fun while Saratoga lost steam

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It had the best weather in years. It had a bolstered marketing budget to promote a 150th birthday. It had its first permanent management group in two years. And it had record purses, buoyed by subsidies from the most successful casino in the United States.

So what happened at Saratoga Race Course this summer, where attendance, handle, and field size all fell despite all that the track had going for it?

There do not appear to be any easy or obvious explanations for the declines, which occurred partially during a month when racing handle across the United States was up nearly 5 percent. Officials for the New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga, have said that they were satisfied with the track’s marketing efforts, even if the efforts did not have a positive impact on Saratoga’s business figures.

“We were happy with the execution,” said Rodnell Workman, NYRA’s chief marketing officer, “but the baseline numbers are ultimately what we are going to be judged on.”

The downturn occurred at the same time that Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, the West Coast bookend to Saratoga, posted gains in both all-sources handle and ontrack handle for a meet running nearly concurrently with Saratoga’s, with one big exception: Del Mar ran five days a week, whereas Saratoga ran six.

Some critics have suggested that Saratoga’s meet, which was expanded to 40 days in 2010, up from 36 days, has grown so lengthy that customers are becoming fatigued. But that concept is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. In addition, some of the falloff in attendance, according to Saratoga officials, occurred because of fewer “spinners,” the people who buy multiple admissions in order to acquire additional promotional items, which are typically given away on Sundays.

Certainly, the slide in attendance suggests that Saratoga is in danger of letting the bloom off its rose, especially when considering the increased marketing efforts both by the track and the city of Saratoga Springs to draw attention to the sesquicentennial anniversary (which marked the 150th year of Thoroughbred racing in Saratoga, but not the 150th anniversary of racing at the current track, which opened in 1864).

The track officially celebrated the birthday on Aug. 3, a Saturday and the day of the Whitney Handicap. Attendees were given a free poster with admission, and the track unveiled a birthday cake during a presentation in the winner’s circle. The winner of a drawing was given a free $15,000 win wager on the Whitney. Attendance for the day was 33,148, up 7.5 percent compared to Whitney Day in 2012.

Attendance for the Travers Stakes also was up over last year, at 47,597 compared to 46,528 on Travers Day in 2012. But that still wasn’t enough to outweigh persistent declines for weekday attendance, leading to an overall decline of 3.8 percent. The decline in attendance took its toll on ontrack handle, which fell 2.1 percent compared to 2012.

Despite the drops, Saratoga’s position at the top of the racing heap remains unthreatened. Average attendance of 21,680 still leads the nation, besting Del Mar and Keeneland by approximately 4,000 people a day (both Keeneland and Del Mar have much smaller footprints than Saratoga). The figure also is higher than the current average attendance figures for five Major League Baseball teams, even though four of the track’s race cards each week take place during most people’s working hours.

The one bright spot during the meet was the track’s average purse, $998,732, which was up 8.3 percent compared to 2012, also the highest in the nation, well above either Del Mar or Keeneland. Still, field size declined 3.6 percent to 8.1 horses per race and all-sources handle dropped fractionally, by 0.3 percent, to $14,667,129 a day.

Some have suggested that pick-six carryovers at Del Mar may have had a negative impact on Saratoga’s handle by drawing out-of-state bettors to Del Mar’s cards. But that doesn’t explain the real source of the declines, because the downturn in betting at Saratoga occurred almost exclusively ontrack.

While Del Mar’s attendance was flat – also suggesting that racing’s marquee summer meets may have hit their high-water marks – average all-sources handle at the seaside track was up 5.2 percent, to $13,036,13, while ontrack handle was up 3.7 percent, to $2,452,080. Even without the benefit of purse subsidies from casinos, purses at Del Mar were up 5.9 percent to $642,116, leading to a 1.6 percent jump in field size, to 8.8.

Here’s where Saratoga numbers diverge most sharply from Del Mar. Per capita wagering at Saratoga this year, even with the extra 4,000 people a day, was $170, $31 higher than Del Mar’s per capita. That’s not surprising, considering Del Mar’s reputation as a place to see and be seen. An argument could be made that the six-day week at Saratoga is having a negative impact on bankrolls, but last year, with higher attendance and ontrack handle, per capita wagering was lower than last year, at $167.

And, lest anyone get overly worked up about the Saratoga declines, they were relatively minor and could be explained by any number of factors, from weakness in the upstate New York economy to what appears to be worsening traffic conditions on the area’s highways and arterial roads. Plus, they’re not the only factors that might be used to measure success, Workman said. At a recent board meeting, NYRA officials said that revenue from concessions, group sales, and merchandise was up 18 percent through August of this year compared to 2012. NYRA unveiled a new logo for the 150th anniversary, which appeared on a number of promotional and retail items, including hats and shirts.

Workman also stressed that much of the marketing efforts at Saratoga focused on improving customer service at the track, which would not have had much effect on getting people to the track in the first place. He said the ontrack efforts are part of a larger strategy by NYRA to create goodwill among customers in order to promote attendance at its two downstate tracks, Belmont and Aqueduct.

“We don’t want Saratoga to be an island,” Workman said. “We want it to be a catalyst for following New York racing year-round.”

But the declines certainly don’t augur well for a further expansion of the Saratoga meet, at least to those who measure success by average wagering and handle numbers. Chris Kay, who took the position of NYRA chief executive just prior to the Saratoga meet starting, has said that NYRA’s board will likely vote on racing dates at its next meeting in early December, including whether to expand the Saratoga meet yet again.

“It’s a very delicate balance, [and] we want to make sure we keep Saratoga very special,” Kay said during NYRA’s board meeting on Aug. 28. “Some time in October, we’ll look at the data and see what it is. This has been a very successful meet to date. It looks like a 40-day meet has been very successful this year.”

T More than 1 year ago
NYRA spends too much time promoting their Pick 6 and guaranteed pools. The Pick 6 can only be played affectingly by a very, very small percentage of bettors who have a large bankroll. And the guaranteed pools are a joke. What the bettors need is LOWER TAKEOUTS. The Pick 5 with a 15% was a step in the right direction (although it was two years late and should be on the last 5 races). The Belmont/Penn Pick 4 on Thursday only is flat out laughable. Like most bettors want to handicap two race cards. How about lowering the takeout on the NYRA Pick 4s to 15%. Lowering the takeouts will create more winners and more churn and therefore more handle and more happy customers. But NYRA doesn't seem to understand this.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Great post, .50 cent 15% trifectas would be more effective than a guaranteed pick six. Unless wise Dan racing how can a little guy possibly play the pick six effectively, and that is just one single.
Stephen Pfaffenbach More than 1 year ago
I bet only with my iPad at the track. I see many others doing the same
B More than 1 year ago
I've lived in NY and I've lived in San Diego and the Del Mar meet will always be be second banana to Saratoga, the most beautiful track there is with the most outstanding race schedule. I do think the increase in days might not be the best idea though.
Jeffrey Eisenstein More than 1 year ago
NYRA should reduce the takeout on all wagers to 15%. After all they are being subsidized by Resorts World casino.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Bongo plus 20!!!!
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Let see I live in Chicago I want to take my wife andkids on vacation, I am also a racing fan, have to.find something we would all enjoy. Honey lets go to saratoga, but the kids have there heart set on San Diego. San Diego it is. No one west of Philly wants to go to that place. Please. When are New Yorkers finally admit that the don't have the best of everything. Never. That is why New York city is starting to suck. When I was kid place was awesome, when I was in my twenties it was dream to live there, now place is overrated living on its name and past of greater years. Vegas better, Miami Better, L.A Better New Orleans. Parts of the year better, Chicago can hold in its own and its freezing. Saratoga is just another one of those Overrated NY attractions.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
I don't live in Chicago and I am not from there either. It was just a scenario. No bias here
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
i left out the fact saratoga is pretty far from NYC
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
East coast people love there old dingy buildings. They hated seeing Yankee stadium get. Replaced. This looks like a old money Victorian houses hostage Ny town who wants to go there outside of a person from east coast who granny and grampy took the when they were 5. Del mar is in San Diego even old cantankerous New Yorkers want to come to Del mar. No one outside of true horse racing fan wants to come to Saratoga Springs, NY. None of my friends want to vacation there why no interest in horse racing. But they will go to del mar on the weekend. WHY Two words SAN DIEGO. no comparison
Jim Jackson More than 1 year ago
"But that doesn’t explain the real source of the declines, because the downturn in betting at Saratoga occurred almost exclusively ontrack." Look no further than this - NYRA initiated free wi-fi last year. The people are there, they just aren't betting at the windows. Last year, half my wagers were through the Spa windows when I was there. This year, absolutely none.
Harvey Hochberg More than 1 year ago
Judging by the intro,are you making this a competition?Are you saying that the ONE positive that California racing can talk about this year, comes at the belittling of Saratoga?Let me say that your issues of longevity would allow me to ask,"Which California track,do you think,will one day celebrate its 100th birthday?
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Santa anita and Del mar.
Walter More than 1 year ago
SA for sure
mikey More than 1 year ago
The Spa needs a facelift.Even places like Fenway had Churchill and others got improvements.They need a new grandstand and clubhouse.The old seats and small boxes have had it.Improve the experence for the every day fan and maybe they will come.Cut the takeout ,lower the food prices get more parking(not walking on mud and grass with puddles).Paying 10-15-or20 to park in a back yard is not the way a first class track works.
James Eccles More than 1 year ago
Because of Saratoga's designation as a historical place, there is little that they could do with the buildings even if they wanted to. It could use a spit-shine, which I understand is forthcoming. The grandstand and clubhouse are there to stay, although you might see something more permanent at the clubhouse turn where those temp trailers are. The takeout is controlled by the Racing and Wagering Board and the state. The food and drink prices have come down from the absurd levels they were back in the 90's, and for a sporting venue they aren't bad. They were selling hot dogs and draft beers for $1.50 each in the backyard. The overall variety and quality is also greatly improved. It's not cheap, but is far from what you would pay at Fenway. I'm not sure where you are going to come up with more parking given the limitations of the property and the space needs more horses and backstretch workers. They could and should certainly do something to truck patrons to and from lots farther removed from the track, and a shuttle system running people in from downtown would also be nice. As for people getting what the traffic will bear to have people park on their lawns that's their business. I don't think their are many "first class tracks" around that would not want to have that kind of problem of too many patrons. There's a fine line between tweaking your product and totally changing it, where you run the risk of destroying the very things that draw people to the venue.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
I never agree with you but can some explain why you have -2. Makes no sense. You are actually making some great points today. Plus one from me.
tim blake More than 1 year ago
the ontrack number will just get worse. how do they expect people ontrack to keep wagering when all the money is being funneled to offtrack bettors and big ADWs that pay really low takeout. Ontrack people are pay huge takeouts compared to the big ADW bettors. Someone should ask NYRA how much was paid out to ontrack wagers the last couple years compared to before the offtrack people were allowed to bet at such a huge advantage. i bet if you look at how much was paid out to ontrack wagers vs. offtrack, you would instantly see why ontrack handle was down. people don't keep betting when they lose. the tracks are forcing everyone offtrack because they are punishing the ontrack patrons and true fans by making them subsidize the big money ADWs. and the ontrack bettors are never even told. they just know they lose much quicker than in the past. so why go back? and that doesn't even touch on the issue of the races themselves. i don't know anyne who watched a day of saratoga this year that at some point did not roll their eyes at the running of some races and the complete lack of oversight by anyone (other than those pulling the strings, i would guess). fans at saratoga for a day or two are fleeced by offtrack bettors and gamblers everywhere are fleeced by the jockeys. that's a recipe for steep decline in handle.
Jeffrey More than 1 year ago
I am somebody who consistently whines about high takeout. The industry shoots itself in the foot when would-be fans are annihilated by 16-31% takeouts. Many of my cohorts, who bet poker and sports, think horse racing is for people with cognitive impairments. After all, who would willingly play a game that virtually guarantees defeat for even its most talented participants. However, a cursory analysis of legal rebate shops, illegal offshore books, and (to a lesser extent) ADW's reveals a dirty little secret. Not everybody is paying the same takeout (at some tracks, high volume players can legally receive rebates of 6 to 12%) An argument could be made that higher volume players deserve special perks. However, I would argue that the best solution is one where all players are subjected to the same takeout. This is parimutuel betting. The tote board doesn't reflect true odds since different players are subjected to different take-out percentages. More importantly, if we want to persuade new players to enter the game, we need to make the game more competitive with popular forms of gambling like poker. Many horsemen cry foul when players complain about takeout rates. I can understand their frustration. They have lost control over the pricing of their product.
Walter More than 1 year ago
I would love to know who the jackasses are that thumbs down the comments of Tim & Jeffrey? These guys are so correct.