09/20/2013 3:20PM

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.”