Updated on 09/17/2011 12:09PM

Keeping 'em in the seats


ARCADIA, Calif. - Chris McCarron stepped carefully over a heavy-duty power cable and turned his head to avoid the thick dust spewing from a concrete saw. All around him, a beehive of last-minute remodeling had turned Santa Anita's grandstand mezzanine into a construction site. For a minute, McCarron was wondering if he'd been hired as general manager, or general contractor.

"Fortunately," McCarron said, "I've been asked for very little input on the project - except for how it might impact the horses."

With just four working days left before the opening of the Santa Anita meet on Dec. 26 - five, for anyone who would like to work Christmas - McCarron was fully prepared to be amazed at the small miracle about to be achieved. Round-the-clock shifts had been dedicated to the completion of the grandstand renovation, which includes a concert stage overlooking the paddock gardens, a huge bar and 140-seat restaurant, and the installation of a number of large-screen TV monitors.

In a perfect world, McCarron probably would have preferred a less chaotic atmosphere in which to launch his first full season as Santa Anita Park's general manager. For a rookie executive, barely a year and a half removed from his retirement as a professional athlete, the job offers enough challenges without trying to deal with major changes to the infrastructure and work pushing well into the 11th hour.

However, since plans for the remodeling were set in motion before McCarron took the job last March, and a whole bunch of other people are in charge, he can only hope that fans will enjoy the new look and have patience with any loose ends, such as the unfinished sandwich stands that have sprouted like bunions from the base of the twin elevator towers.

The new paddock gardens stage will be playing host to race-day comedians and musical combos, as well as full-blown postrace concerts. It is a dramatically scaled-back version of the grand plan first set forth by Frank Stronach, Magna Entertainment's chairman. When Magna bought Santa Anita in 1998, Stronach envisioned an elaborate paddock theater that could host anything from a rodeo to "can-can girls," as he memorably promised. A whole new breed of fans would come to Santa Anita for the Vegas-style diversions and then stick around for the racing.

But with such nagging issues as workers' compensation costs, shrinking field size, and lack of ownership capital making everyone's job tougher, the sight of a new restaurant and bar at Santa Anita might seem like yet another rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. McCarron tries to stay focused on the reactions of the fans.

"The most serious challenge we have is to figure out how to entertain our customers, while not annoying those customers who don't necessarily want to be entertained," McCarron said.

"When I was a kid, there was no entertainment between periods at a hockey game" - McCarron's team was the Boston Bruins. "Now, there's entertainment at every whistle. People expect it, and they're bored if they don't get it.

"But I'm not sure it was the fans who brought that on. I think it was the keen competition for the entertainment dollar. I guess we all have Bill Veeck to thank for that, since he was the first baseball team owner to have an exploding scoreboard."

While restaurants and rock bands give a racetrack promotional tools, McCarron is convinced managements have been missing a very basic boat.

"We haven't made the game itself anywhere near as entertaining as it really is," he insisted. "And I know that for a fact, because I rode 35,000 races. It's a lot more fun than we've been able to expose."

His work as race designer for the movie "Seabiscuit" has inspired McCarron to aggressively pursue technologies that would bring fans closer to the raw sights and sounds of the race.

"So many other sports have been able to do that with cameras right on top of the field," McCarron said. "And remember how football, with the 'big ear,' was able to pick up every grunt and groan? All of a sudden, the game wasn't just visual, it was a dramatic auditory experience, too."

In the meantime, McCarron is busy learning the business, finding his corporate niche, and figuring out what personal strengths apply to a position that, by definition, has no particular definition.

"I wouldn't say that I'm overwhelmed, but I'm definitely 'whelmed,' " McCarron said with a grin. "While I was still riding, I always asked a lot of questions about how a racetrack was run. In fact, I was downright nosy. But I don't think I exactly need to become an expert in every area of management. I think that might lead to the temptation to micromanage, and that would be counterproductive.

"I think my people skills will help me the most. I want to exert the kind of influence on everyone who works here that makes them sit back and think that this really is the 'Great Race Place.' I would really like to see the day when the customers leave Santa Anita thinking that management really treated them right. Not that I get a lot of letters of complaint. But I don't get a lot of complimentary letters, either, and that's what I'm hoping for."