12/23/2008 1:00AM

Job 1: Get 'em to the racetrack


ARCADIA, Calif. - Opening day sells itself. The rest will be hard work.

This should come as no surprise, and it is the sober view of marketing VP Allen Gutterman, a 30-year veteran of the racing game who has found his latest home at Santa Anita Park. Not that considerable effort wasn't put forth in an attempt to make the opener a smash. It's just that, by comparison, the 83 racing days that follow figure to be ripe for a beating by stark economic forces.

The temptation would be to hunker down and ride it out, hoping that racing's fortunes will turn with the economic tide. Gutterman prefers a more proactive strategy, however, and his creative fingerprints are all over an array of promotional efforts - big days, special events, vouchers, free tickets - designed to put more bodies in the building.

And what a building he has to work with. Even today, 74 years after the curtain was raised on Christmas Day of 1934, Santa Anita represents the ultimate in the marriage of racetrack bricks and mortar with natural surroundings. Oh sure, Chantilly has the Grandes Ecuries commanding the view in the distance, with forests all around. And Tokyo Race Course ranks as the ultimate in size and scope for an ultra-modern facility, while Arlington Park is still the perfect, polished jewel.

But none of those places benefit from a backdrop like the San Gabriel Mountains and the foothills of Sierra Madre, an incomparable framing device that is complemented by Santa Anita's signature paddock gardens and gracefully designed infield. Few racetracks take the "park" part of their name so seriously.

"I've worked at some wonderful racetracks," Gutterman said earlier this week, as Friday's opener approached. "But anyone who comes to Santa Anita falls in love with Santa Anita."

To that end he feels obligated to get as many people exposed to the place as possible, even in the face of a serious recession.

"You'd be foolish not to be addressing what's going on in the world in some way," Gutterman. "We've created Free Fridays, or Frugal Fridays if you prefer, when admission is free and hot dogs, beer, soft drinks, and popcorn are a buck each. It can be a pretty inexpensive way to spend a day at a pretty nice place. What you do with your betting is your business."

Some challenges never change, no matter what the economic environment.

"Over the years, this industry has done such a great job of making use of technology - crosstown simulcasting, betting at home, picking up the phone - that we have made it very easy not to come to the racetrack," Gutterman said. "The glorious experience of being here has been substituted by convenience."

This is becoming an old song, the problem of racetracks bringing people back to the track after making it easy for them to stay away. When Gutterman and his staff sat down this fall to spitball ideas for ad campaigns and TV spots - picture Don Draper calling his fellow "Mad Men" together in his corner office at Sterling Cooper - they had the fundamental choice of confronting the impact of the economy head on or opting for a more product-oriented concept.

"The most obvious approach was value," Gutterman noted. "What a good deal a day of racing can be even in these tough times. But no one needs us to point out that the economy is bad. So we went another direction, to the idea of how we all got started in the game - who took us to the track for the first time, and how we all became mentors to another generation of fans.

"For me it was my older brother's friends, back in New York," Gutterman went on. "They took me to the track, showed me the ropes, and I fell in love with it."

Gutterman went from a summer intern job at Monticello Raceway in upstate New York to the public relations spot at Yonkers Raceway. From there, big-time harness at the Meadowlands beckoned. He added Thoroughbreds to his working world during his Meadowlands days, then spent tours of duty with the New York Racing Association, Arlington Park, and Hollywood Park before joining Santa Anita in 2005.

Gutterman's marketing career was ignited early in his Meadowlands sojourn by a horse named Symbol's Yankeetron.

"We chose a race in March, in which the winner would become the people's horse," Gutterman explained. "Everybody who came to the track that day and signed up would share in how much money he earned, based on how many times they came whenever he raced. I was rooting for the favorite, a horse with a real cool name. Instead the winner was Symbol's Yankeetron, and somehow he became hypnotized by the whole thing. He wound up racing every week, running 17 times and winning 12 of them. At the end of the meet, 3,000 people each got a check for $30. The accounting department was pissed, but every time he ran we had a bump of 20 to 25 percent in attendance.

"Of course, Thoroughbreds don't run often enough to do something like that today," Gutterman added. "That's why our greatest asset is really this racetrack. I got to talk with a lot of people last fall when the Breeders' Cup was here. People who had never been here before. They said, 'You should never, ever take for granted that you work here.' "