05/21/2016 8:19AM

Gisser: Owners come first at Woodbine, Mohawk

Michael Burns
Owners attending the races at Mohawk and Woodbine will soon have someone on their side.

When I first saw the ad posted on social media, I was ready to pack up and move to Ontario.

PURSUE YOUR POTENTIAL & BEGIN YOUR EXCITING FUTURE WITH US TODAY!  Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) is seeking a customer service focused, resourceful and innovative individual to join our Racing team at Woodbine Racetrack. Reporting to the Senior Manager, Racing Operations, the Standardbred Concierge & Owner Development Associate will ensure our current owners have a positive experience while visiting our racing facilities, creating a sense of comfort and recognition for our owners with a simple philosophy – “If it’s possible, consider it done”. The Associate will also investigate new ways to educate and recruit prospective Standardbred Owners with guidance from the Senior Manager.Own It!  

[DRF HARNESS: We now offer live Results as they happen along with Entries and Live Odds. DRF Harness is your one-stop place for Harness Racing.]

Canada is doing a great job of bringing new owners into the sport – relaxing rules and reducing fees on fractional owners, among other things – and it appears that Woodbine also realizes the importance of keeping those new, smaller owners happy. In fact, one role of this new ownership liaison will be to “Investigate and analyze new ways to enter ownership; i.e. syndicate groups.” We hear the cliché all the time. Without owners, there is no harness racing, and while some will argue that bettors are more important, that is a different column for a different day. But Woodbine is taking that mantra seriously.

Back in my Northfield Park days, we did a lot to make sure our horse owners were treated properly. Mary Randall, the group sales director, was also the primary clubhouse hostess and was actively involved in owner relations on a day-to-day basis. Meanwhile, Dave Bianconi and I, in the publicity office, fielded inquiries from potential owners, referred them to trainers, arranged backstretch tours, and recruited both on property, with annual all-day ownership seminars, and off, with presentations to various civic groups.

But, as more and more hyphens were added to our titles (when I left I was Publicity Director-Players Club Manager – Bet Harness Coordinator- Webmaster, plus track handicapper, which just did not fit on my business card), the outreach to potential owners became less and less of an emphasis. Granted, in those last days before slots, unlike the early 2000s, we really did not have much positive to offer potential owners, but we should still have been out there hustling and looking forward to the day when business rebounded. This is the way many tracks look at owner relations. Let the hospitality people focus on hospitality and shuffle off recruitment to whoever can handle it. It is not a dedicated position.

Woodbine appears to be taking this charge very seriously, as their head of Standardbred Racing Operators Bill McLinchey told me. “We have always put a high priority on ensuring owners participating in Major Stake races receive top level ‎seating and service. Now we want to extend that same high priority onto owners participating in any race. We are also hopeful we can encourage more owners to come watch their horses race live,” he said.

A full-time, dedicated position, which mirrors a similar position on the Thoroughbred side at the dual-breed Ontario track, gives potential owners and horsemen a point person to contact with questions. There is no picking up the phone and being routed through multiple offices (at Northfield, some potential owners would be put through to the race office, others to the publicity office, depending on the receptionist on duty). Surprisingly, the T-bred post did not impact the decision on the Standardbred side, according to McLinchey.

“One did not influence the other. The positions are part of WEG'S overarching owner outreach program,” said McLinchey. “Owners are very important to us here at Mohawk and Woodbine, so establishing a go-to person to attend to their needs was a necessary in the development of the concept.”

I have no idea what Woodbine plans to pay this individual, but I hope it is an incentive-laden compensation plan. If he or she is highly successful, reward that person. And, while Woodbine wants someone energetic and “all in,” let’s hope they also find someone who is knowledgeable and realistic, while still being a great ambassador for the sport and more importantly, the business of the sport. They post: “What our ideal candidate might be doing now: Supporting customer retention and development in hospitality/retail environment; Working at the coordinator level with experience providing a customized, elevated guest experience.”  

The individual filling this role needs to know how to read a program; needs to know a red from a rose’ and needs to know a forelock from a fetlock. That was a concern for me, until McLinchey told me that Woodbine is in the process of hiring someone who has been involved in racing; someone who is very passionate about the future of the industry.

“All along my hope was to hire someone with horse experience,” said McLinchey.

I am glad Woodbine is not treating this as an entry level position. This is a great idea and one, in a perfect world, that every track would adopt. I do have one concern other than the possible lack of horse background as a prerequisite. One responsibility for this person will be to greet and assist all high value/high profile owners while visiting Woodbine and Mohawk Racetracks. Hopefully, the Standardbred Concierge and Ownership Development Associate will spend just as much time greeting and assisting the new guy with one (or a fractional piece of one) minimum claimer as he or she does with that high profile owner. The high profile owner probably isn’t leaving the sport any time soon, the new guy might if the experience is not a good one. I’m not saying ignore the big boys. I’m just saying not to ignore the small potatoes.

It’s kind of a shame McLinchey is “in the process of hiring someone.” Let’s see. Canada: Legal Cuban cigars, John Labatt Extra Stock, and Rush. Maybe it’s time to polish up the résumé, just in case. That’s all for now. Go cash and we will speak again next month.