04/25/2012 1:27PM

Hovdey: Southern California tracks aim to hike fun factor

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Have you heard? Horse racing is no longer fun, or at least that’s how the story goes these days, and therefore horse racing must be made fun again if it is to survive in a climate rife with entertainment alternatives that are unimaginably fun. As a result, “fun” has become the byword across the board in management circles, stamped on the forehead of every department chief and dominating the memos. Once recognized as a pleasing byproduct of a well-run operation, fun is now the whole point of the exercise.

This new fun zone of California racing is embodied by Santa Anita’s most recent CEO, Mark Verge, a horse owner and horseplayer whose many other businesses include bars, restaurants, and rental properties, and by Stephen Burn, the CEO of TVG/Betfair and the man behind the rebranding of the landmark track as Betfair Hollywood Park, which opens its meet this week.

During his brief time on the Santa Anita management scene, Verge has seemed so energetically committed to customers having a good time that you almost worry for his health. Personable to a fault, clearly in love with the game, Verge desperately wants his racetrack to join that circle of precious L.A. destinations as a kneejerk answer to the question, “Where can we go for some fun?” To that end, he will spend Santa Anita’s off season beating the drum in local circles, aiming for a home run meet this fall when the Breeders’ Cup comes to his track.

Burn, self-described “white trash from the north” of England, confesses to knowing about television and betting, and sod all the rest, blessing his good fortune for being able to marry his passions as CEO of TVG/Betfair. Now a creature of Marina del Rey, far from the wastelands of his youth, Burn has warmed to Southern California and considers Hollywood Park his neighborhood track, being not only marina handy but also just down the 405 Freeway from the TVG/Betfair studios.

“Look at this place,” Burn said, standing in the gazeboed gardens straddling the Turf Club and Clubhouse entrances. “Once you get in here, it’s truly beautiful.”

The liaison between Betfair and Hollywood Park is unique only in the sense that an iconic racing brand has been renamed to reflect a level of sponsorship that is different from attempts by other tracks to embrace a deep-pocketed benefactor. Hollywood Park once allowed its Gold Cup to be sponsored by Sempra Energy, which did not look so good in the wake of its connection to Enron, but who knew? Both Santa Anita and Del Mar have reached out to Native American tribes for synergies that have done no real harm, despite the mixed message of the San Manuel Indian Casino & Bingo’s “How Far Is Fun?” ad campaign, with banners in the Santa Anita Park paddock gardens insisting that the real fun was down the road.

San Manuel “presents” the Santa Anita Handicap just as TVG/Betfair is all over the TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar, soup to nuts. Del Mar is expanding its relationship with TVG/Betfair even further this summer, with a deal that includes not only wagering on its races but the production of Del Mar’s simulcast product as well, and bringing HD technology along for the ride.

But, as Burn noted, Betfair and TVG could not be satisfied, in a business relationship sense, with Del Mar alone, especially since the Del Mar meet lasts only seven weeks. An unabashed company man whose mandate is to enhance TVG/Betfair revenues, Burn defers to Hollywood president Jack Liebau on all things operational and seems to appreciate the fact that horse racing must answer to more than just a bottom line, being quick to acknowledge that no matter what Betfair offers in terms of marketing savvy or financial support, the conditions in which the horses live will be of ongoing concern.

“It really doesn’t matter what else you do, does it, if your most important element is not treated well,” Burn said.

Racing’s other most important element – the patron – will not necessarily notice any tangible difference in the Betfair version of Hollywood Park as the 2012 season unfurls other than the signage, the bold black of Betfair’s sans serif logo set against a golden yellow background. Plans are in the works, though, for physical changes that both Burn and track president Jack Liebau hope will appeal to the fans who prefer a bit of coddling with their horseplaying.

On a visit last week, the two men led a curious reporter into a large, gutted space just inside the building at the top of the clubhouse escalators. Once a refuge for customers for whom fresh air was not a priority, the new room – scheduled for opening at the fall meeting – will in Burn’s imagination call to mind a popular corner of the modern Ascot Race Course in his native England, where fans can access all manner of video stimulation while playing the ponies in comfort and just enough style. Burn, who got a chuckle at the sight of 1970s era televisions being evacuated, was asked how much it would be costing Betfair to help fund such a promising facelift.

“I’m not sure,” he replied. “Jack?”

“I haven’t told him yet,” Liebau deadpanned.

They’ve developed a bit of a May-December byplay, Burn and Liebau, the younger, digitally quick Brit and the veteran racetrack manager whose masters at the Bay Meadows Land Co. are on record with plans to develop the Hollywood property.

“Hollywood Park was the first racetrack out here with an app,” said Liebau, proud as if they’d invented the wheel. “Of course, I’m not sure we’ve used it to our full advantage.”

Which, in theory, is where Betfair steps up to the plate with its Internet expertise and marketing muscle.

“It’s not about rock concerts and giveaways and flash mobs though,” Burn said. “It’s about putting the means to make a bet into the hands of a younger audience. We know that when the economy becomes favorable there’s every expectation that the track’s property will be turned into office space and housing. But until that day, what’s wrong with having a few good years and some fun in the bargain?”

Michael Cooper More than 1 year ago
I have spent the past 45 years as a fan and participant in the great game of horse racing. Anyone that likes or loves the game must be dismayed by the current health of the industry, especially in California. Previous track leadership has failed to respond to the core customers for many years. The smaller promotion budgets continue to be wasted on junk giveaways, which may swell hot dog sales, but do little for handle or fan building. The tracks have two core customers, obviously the first and foremost is the gambler who pays for the show and the second is the horse owner who puts the show on. I'm confident that both Mr. Burn and Mr. Verge understand know their business, let's just hope it not too late for their efforts to have a lasting, beneficial effect.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
All this is great of course... We all know these joints need revenue. But how 'bout starting with safe racing surfaces at ALL of them. Not seeing that horse ambulance entering the track... Now THAT's a day at the Races. And it's FUN !
gerald vinci More than 1 year ago
I believe that the gamblers are what make a gambling business profitable.The only way to encourage the gamblers to participate more is to lower the take(especially now that players may be betting 40 races per day).This probably will never happen.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked what Santa Anita did on closing day with the Party in the Paddock. Half off alcohol and food is the type of promo tracks need to employ in order to attract the younger set. Plenty of staff at the main bar and at the stands in the paddock and short lines made for a sharp contrast with opening day when it was understaffed and the lines and prices made obtaining alcohol difficult and expensive. Take pointers from Vegas. To his credit, Mark Verge is putting himself out there, and is willing to engage the patron in a way I've never experienced before. Props to him for making himself available to myself, my friends, and many others at the Party in the Paddock. There is no guarantee Santa Anita or thoroughbred racing as a whole will be able to make significant inroads with young people in their 20s and early 30s, but I believe Verge is, at the least, on the right path. Hollywood Park was forced, like Churchill Downs to an extent, to experiment with Fri night racing out of desperation. The challenges it presents to horsemen is recognized, but one would have to conclude that Hollywood and Churchill's night racing has been a success. Santa Anita might not feel itself in desperate enough circumstances yet, but I don't know how long it can wait to start throwing in some Friday night cards. Offer half-off beer/alcohol and food and some decent bands, and I think Santa Anita could cross-over in a way Hollywood never can. The location of Santa Anita in Arcadia as compared to Inglewood gives it a big advantage, especially when we're talking about driving up at night, and the sheer beauty of the Santa Anita facility makes it an attractive venue for such an event. When I was leaving Santa Anita on Sunday after sundown, I was struck by the near magical feel, with the white lights illuminating the paddock. Tracks should place particular importance trying to attract younger women. Let's be honest, a weekday afternoon at a number of tracks might be a little intimidating for a younger female new to the sport. Number one, they need to be made to feel safe. Second, tracks need think about how to provide entertainment or activities that compliment the 30 minutes between races and the time both before the card and after it. Maybe something as simple as Friday night "Ladies Night" would help, where drinks are half-off for women. From my own experiences, the anecdotal evidence is that of the 3 major tracks in southern California, the only one able to attract groups of single(or unaccompanied)women is Del Mar. When you can draw groups of women, the men will follow. Of course, there's a little bit of a chicken-egg thing because one thing that will make the track more inviting for younger women is a larger number of younger men. If a track can really start make inroads with younger men, then chances are more young women will follow. If the track can then offer special events/activities/incentives that draws in an even bigger increase in younger women, then it won't have to worry much about getting young men to the track; they'll be there.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Which anonymous are you?
Greg Fasching More than 1 year ago
Qit charging for parking and admission. Quit charging $7.00 for a beer and $4.00 for a hotdog. You might just get more people in.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Hi Jay, It is a fine point to note the buzz word of “fun” that so many in the management of the horse race industry seem to bandy about readily. One suspects that nothing is more fun (to them) than the paychecks they draw off of said industry. So let the jocularity and merriment begin. These guys put the fun in fungus, err, or maybe not. Personally, I feel that the youths that they want to draw into the game would be more receptive to “buzz” words such as, say, warm, personal, savvy, smart, and honest. But maybe that’s just me. I can remember being somewhat insulted when referred to as a “fun loving guy” by a college prof. Then a girl friend said, “but you are a fun loving guy” and things were better. Exceptionally smart, she. Thanks.
gerald vinci More than 1 year ago
You know what would be fun? Getting rid of those ridiculous "17 T.V.'s in the Paddock Room(otherwise known as the basement) at Santa Anita and putting in some real racebook -size T.V.'s....Pathetic.