06/27/2012 3:33PM

Gisser: A few suggestions for a couple small harness tracks


I attended two small five-eighth-mile tracks this month, and although they are separated by a time zone and about 1,100 miles, Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus, Minn., and Tioga Downs in Nichols, N.Y., have a great deal in common.

Both are just off freeways - Running Aces off I-35, Tioga off the “future” I-88. Both promote aggressively, with creative activities designed to draw crowds. In fact, independent of each other, they ran an identical promotion, Carnival Day/Night, on June 24. Both succeed with these promotions, drawing good crowds. Both have a well-known “face” of the track - at Running Aces it is announcer Peter Galassi, who calls several races from the racetrack apron each card and answers questions from the fans while on air. At Tioga, it is Jason Settlemoir, who serves as general manager and owner Jeff Gural’s right hand man.

On any given day, Settlemoir may be found riding a camel, drawing the names of prize winners, bouncing on an inflatable horse or even playing with a live alligator. I can vouch for the last, since it was my gator. I was at the track presenting my Handicapping Herpetologist program (which, for the record, has not been to Running Aces, yet). Both tracks run numerous food and drink specials. Who would think you could get a $1 Hebrew National hot dog in Columbus, Minn.? But every Tuesday night you can do just that at Running Aces, along with $1 sodas and more.

Both tracks draw well and folks seem very interested in the races. But neither really handles particularly well, although Settlemoir points out that Tioga has the second-highest per capita wagering of any of New York’s harness tracks, behind Yonkers. But he admits it could be better. And Running Aces Carnival Night Sunday set an all-time record handle. But it was only $225,096. So why won’t these folks bet, and what can we do to get them started?

Running Aces does not have slots, but its purses are enhanced by a busy poker room. Tioga has slots. These allow both a purse structure above and beyond their mutuel handle. For years, cynics have said we cannot attract the slots crowd or the poker crowd to the races, and point to anecdotal evidence. But these tracks have them watching. Slots players love the churn, the repeated action. And they are used to perks, either free play or match play. So let’s start there.

Here is my first suggestion. When the slots or poker player walks into the facility, they are given a match-play card. For every $25 in slots play (or half-hour of poker play) they get a $5 harness bet and a free program. If they bet it and lose, fine. At least we gave them a shot, and since they can earn more than one rebate, they are bound to eventually cash. And then they re-bet that money, eventually negating the cost to the track. If they hit on the first one and walk away, that’s fine too. You know they will be telling their friends that they “beat the track,” and then their friends will be looking to do the same. It is not sustainable forever, but it is a clever promotion that will get slot folks not just over to the racing side, but to the betting windows, as well.

I always have felt that racing, or at least the track, should be visible to all patrons, including those who are not inclined to wager on horses. And I realize that with some facilities, it may not be possible, but at both Running Aces and Tioga it is more than likely that you will see the track at some point during your trip, especially if you are there during live racing. Not as obvious as I would like it, but you will see it. Running Aces actually has several tables with a full view of the track. Why can’t more racinos put slots out into the racing areas, either where the betting windows are located, or even facing the track?

As a former promoter of stand-up comedy, I always had heated discussions with our club owners over the cover versus a minimum. Simply put, do we charge X dollars for the show and require everyone to buy at least two drinks, or do we charge 2X for the show with no minimum number of drinks that need to be purchased. Now, relax. I am not advocating for a drink minimum at the racetrack. But the idea is intriguing. Instead of free admission, why not a $5 admission charge (cover) that includes a program and a $5 wager? It’s still basically free and it puts a program in everyone’s hands. That is particularly significant at tracks that are heavy on promotions, like Tioga and Running Aces, since they heavily advertise their coming events in the past performances. It also will get customers to the windows at least once, which brings us back to the idea I stated above. Or, you pay $5 to enter and once you have bet a certain amount, say $10, admission and program cost would be refunded. That’s a minimum.

I would also like to see the slot tracks provide bonus points for wagers on racing to their players’ club members, at least at certain times. I realize that on the surface this may not make sense - those wagers cost the tracks more than the slot wagers do, but creating new racing gamblers an incentive may make a minor difference in increasing handle as well.
The last thing we need to do for the slots and poker folks has been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere. We need to simplify the program and keep the time between races short. Running Aces and Tioga both do a good job of this. Both tracks can fire off an 11-12 race card in right around 3 1/2 hours, which keeps things moving quite well. The simpler program? Not so much, at least recently.

So, if you visit Running Aces or Tioga Downs in the near future, whether for slots or poker, a special event concert, discounted beer or food or a snake-handling handicapper, make sure to check out the racing and wager a few bucks.

* My fearless leader and editor, Derick Giwner, has a great blog post up about Walter Case, GooGoo GaaGaa and other assorted stuff at www.drf.com/giwner. He says, “With the Hambo out of the picture I immediately thought of the Nat Ray Invitational. Why not invite Googoo Gaagaa to face off against the top older trotters in training in the Nat Ray on Hambo Day? Convincing his connections may be difficult, but perhaps a purse sweetener or a bonus to Googoo Gaagaa if he wins would entice the partially pacing-bred budding star.”

Two words, Derick. Falcon Seelster. Perhaps history WILL repeat itself.