05/25/2017 3:30PM

Gisser: Harness Racing needs to reach out to an upscale audience

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In the eight or nine years I have been writing this column, I have spent plenty of time talking about how to get more people gambling more money, and more importantly how to get more people out to the track more often. If it wasn’t a handicapping column, it was a “what can we do to make the sport more appealing to the unwashed masses?” column. It appears I have been looking at it wrong.

I have promoted dozens of ways to get people to embrace harness racing and eventually come to the track – branded restaurants, lower takeout, entertainment between races, concession specials and the like. All appeals designed to get the new customer to appreciate the value of coming to the track. Wrong market! We need to attract the rich guys.

On Kentucky Derby Day I again hosted the annual bourbon tasting at Spennato’s Italian Ristorante, a wonderful little spot that is just a stone’s throw from Northfield Park. They use tasting and sampling events to promote their food and nearly all sell out. In previous years, we held this event during the week, but this year the attendees wanted it to be held Derby Day, so we gathered around 5 p.m. to taste five amazing bourbons, each punctuated with even better food, with a slight interruption for the race itself.

[Column aside: I wagered $58 on the Derby this year. $10 to win on Always Dreaming. $24 of exactas and $24 in trifectas. None with the proper longshots. Always Dreaming paid $11.40, or $57 on a $10 ticket.  Story of my life.]

The cost for this event, scheduled to run three hours, was $55.  A $10 win bet on Always Dreaming would have covered it. But many of the two-dozen attendees stayed much later, continuing to pour money through the windows, err, bar and kitchen. The per capita neared $100. And, if you didn’t like bourbon, there was a wine assortment available, including the “official” Kentucky Derby wine from 14 Hands.

We ran similar tastings, although with an a la carte menu, early in my career at Northfield on the eve of the Derby and we drew not just very well (Over 100 one year, with the promise of a free shirt and glass), but a higher-end clientele than we were used to seeing. And they kept drinking . . . and eating . . . and betting.

To be clear, it does not have to be about bourbon. The firm that handles my accounting does nights at Northfield three or four times a year. But these are almost all casual affairs. Don’t get me wrong, they are quite enjoyable. But why not a fancier, sit-down dinner for their wealth management clients, instead of a picnic type of atmosphere for folks like me?

Meanwhile, on Kentucky Derby Eve, Louisville was abuzz with the Stitzel-Weller Affair presented by Blade and Bow Bourbon. Rain forced the event under a tent, but North Carolina bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers, who often perform with Steve Martin, wrapped up the $500 per ticket evening that also offered a tribute to the 82nd anniversary of the opening of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, for many years the workplace of master distiller Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle Sr. Dinner was provided by Chef Ford Fry of The Optimist, a much-lauded Atlanta seafood temple, and Louisville’s Wiltshire Pantry. Rare bourbons samples were offered, with an expert whiskey educator commenting.

Our sport offers little, if anything, on that scale.  Northfield Park’s Rocksino offered a high-end bourbon dinner at its Kosar’s Steakhouse last year and the event sold out. I am told it was awesome, but out of the price range of a monthly DRF contributor. Why not move the event to the track, even if Kosar’s does the catering? You will draw people with large disposable incomes, who will experience the excitement of live racing. I know most tracks offer charity fundraising packages. But how many are truly upscale meals, costing in the hundreds of dollars, as opposed to $50 or $75?

The Meadowlands, during Hambletonian week, offers a $50 casino night and a golf outing, but from what I could find, nothing really upscale. The Little Brown Jug just does not fit that upscale model, although an argument can be made that with the addition of the Hospitality Pavilion several years back that they are moving in that direction, with a $250 Jug Day ticket. And Lexington has the amazing Round Barn Stable of Memories. Many fundraisers are held there, but why not push that one event, a big ticket event that includes a VIP Day at the Races first. Ship in a chef or use a top local chef; bring in Heaven Hill’s Bernie Lubbers or someone else to speak on the bourbons; offer a first class experience to benefit a popular charity, but make it about the horses first.

As I said, it does not have to be about bourbon. But it does have to be about horseracing. Make an industry charity – SRF, New Vocations or (preferably) HHYF – the beneficiary. And let’s draw some folks who might not see a race otherwise. If we can get upscale folks to the racetrack a first time and provide a special experience for them, some may stay.

Now go cash. Hopefully for more than $57 on a $58 wager. See you next month.