04/25/2012 1:27PM

Hovdey: Southern California tracks aim to hike fun factor


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?”