06/06/2005 12:00AM

Drawing larger crowds becomes marketing priority

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Lone Star Park has always drawn large crowds, but through the halfway point of its current meet, attendance figures are lagging 19 percent behind comparable dates from a year ago. Handle, however, has remained largely intact, with betting on Lone Star's live races down just 4 percent from the same period in 2004.

Despite the figures, an official said the track is operating on solid ground, with a plan of attack being formulated to bolster business for the rest of the 67-date meet, which closes July 17.

During the first 35 days of the meet, which opened April 14, Lone Star has averaged 6,872 patrons a card, compared with 8,547 during the same period a year ago. Betting on the live program has averaged $2,360,593 a day, with $490,712 of that amount bet ontrack, a figure that lags 11 percent behind the numbers for the corresponding period in 2004.

Offtrack, betting on Lone Star's races is about the same as a year ago, averaging $1,869,881.

Overall, with the inclusion of betting on incoming simulcasts, Lone Star has had an average daily handle of $3,087,130 this meet, down 5 percent from $3,248,599 for the first half of the spring meet in 2004.

"It's been less than what you would like to see the first five, six, seven weeks, but all in all we're happy," said Jeff Greco, general manager of Lone Star. "I look at what other tracks are doing and how much money other tracks handle, and what the competition is at night and on the weekend, and our business is strong."

But the idea is always to grow business, Greco said, and one area of focus the rest of the meet will be attendance, which he feels has been compromised by competition from other sports and from casinos out of state.

Lone Star has always excelled at drawing large crowds, be it through concerts, reduced admission and concession prices, or cards with multiple stakes. It's a marketing savvy that comes with going up against successful area sports franchises such as the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA, the Texas Rangers of Major League baseball, and Nascar, which holds races at the Texas Motor Speedway.

"We've had 10 Mavericks games head-to-head with our live races [this meet], and the Rangers, 20 of the first 35 games were head-to-head with us," said Greco. "There's only about 10 out of 32 games the second half of the season that are head-to-head with us."

The competition cuts into crowd size, which impacts handle, as does a dip in field sizes. Greco said 50 races have had six or less starters through the first 35 days of the meet, as opposed to 34 races during the same period in 2004. Average field size has declined from 9.6 starters a race at the halfway point of the meet a year ago, to 8.9 this year. This decline is not too bad, Greco said, considering Lone Star and Louisiana Downs in nearby Shreveport, La., have been racing head-to-head.

This year's overlap of more than two months is the longest ever between that track and Lone Star.

During the current meet, Lone Star has paid out an average of $221,905 a day in purses, which, Greco said, is up 13 percent from the same period a year ago. Purses or race dates are not in danger of being cut, he said.

Morgan on roll

Trainer Tommie Morgan, who has won with six of his last seven starters since June 3, will be in action Wednesday night at Lone Star with first-time starter Devil and Angel in the sixth race. The maiden special weight for 2-year-olds is restricted to fillies bred in Texas.

Morgan won four races at Lone Star on Sunday, and on Saturday captured the $40,000 Nevill/Kyocera, an overnight sprint stakes for 3-year-olds, with War Bridle.

War Bridle could make his next start around one turn, in the $100,000 Alysheba at six furlongs July 2, or around two, in the $125,000 Assault for Texas-breds at 1 1/16 miles on July 9.

"He's the type of horse that really, right now, could go either way," said Morgan. "He's got enough speed to run short, and he's got enough ability to go long. He's a real versatile type of horse."