12/05/2012 4:13PM

Symposium: Speakers offer contrasting suggestions to struggling racetracks

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TUCSON, Ariz. – It is, to some people, the most critical question currently facing the struggling racing industry. Where should a racetrack focus its discretionary spending: on the ontrack experience, or the marketing of its simulcast product?

That question was addressed acutely Wednesday morning at the University of Arizona Global Symposium on Racing and Gaming, though in successive panels. And it is likely that the second option – focusing on the presentation of the simulcast product, i.e., field size and market penetration – will win the day in U.S. racing, considering the low costs of implementation and the domestic industry’s heavy reliance on purse subsidies from casinos.

Not that the first option does not have its supporters. Foremost among them is Paul Roberts, the co-founder of Turnberry Consulting Ltd., the British design firm. Roberts, who consults for the New York Racing Association and had a role in the redesign of Ascot in England, was given the podium all to himself for the first presentation at the symposium on Wednesday morning, and he used his one hour on the stage to take attendees through a detailed history of racetrack design while arguing, sometimes passionately, and more often, persuasively, that the survival of racing will hinge on whether racetracks are designed to create memorable experiences during ontrack visits.

Over the past three years, Roberts has established a sizeable number of U.S. acolytes and acquired a significant chunk of racing history geek cred, largely through public presentations he has given in New York and Kentucky in assistance of Saratoga and Keeneland. Heavily reliant on architectural images and steeped in history, his presentations display a connoisseur’s knowledge of facility design and a deep, abiding love of racing.

Roberts adamantly believes that racing is making a huge mistake when relying on handle to determine whether the sport is making the right business decisions. Without creating and retaining new fans through the ontrack experience, Roberts implies, the sport is doomed to a long slow slide into irrelevance – a slide that may have already begun, considering six straight years of declines in U.S. parimutuel handle.

At one point, Roberts showed a picture during his presentation of throngs of people crowded around the walking ring at Ascot, with the British superhorse Frankel in the foreground. He described how Ascot’s newly renovated grounds are designed to make horses available for viewing on a 30-minute round-trip from stables to saddling ring to viewing stand to track and back again.

“Why have all these people come to see this horse, who is walking very slowly around the track?” Roberts said, pointing out the numerous children on the shoulders of their parents with cameras in their hands. “And why has this system developed that has allowed this horse to be viewed for 25 to 30 minutes? And why are 9,000 people [along the route] watching this horse for 25 to 30 minutes? This is Frankel, so maybe that is an exception. But what does that? What brings those small boys to the tracks because they want to do this?”

To Roberts, the ideal racetrack design is one that is unique though universally focused on one attraction: the horse. He said that racing cannot rely on “team loyalty” like the Boston Red Sox, whose fans would still go to baseball games even if their beloved Fenway Park was torn down.

“As a racing fan, it’s very difficult to say I only want to watch Rachel Alexandra,” he said. “You have to have a loyalty for a track, for the place. Unless you have a loyalty to the place, it doesn’t work.”

Implementing Roberts’s vision would likely take money, and lots of it, something that is in short supply in racing right now (discounting the deep pockets of the owners of racinos, who very rarely use their money to fund large-scale renovations of racetracks). As a result, racetrack managers will almost certainly continue to rely on the marginal strategies to improve handle that were suggested at the morning’s second panel, which was entitled “Keeping Racing Relevant and the Parimutuel Side of the Racino Profitable.”

Erich Zimny, the highly respected vice president of racing operations at Charles Town in West Virginia, was the moderator of the panel, and he took attendees through the myriad tactics he has employed over the past three years that have resulted in a 32 percent gain in all-sources handle on races at Charles Town. Though Zimny started off his presentation by saying that there was “no way” that racing at Charles Town would ever be profitable, he said that his success in growing handle at the track was due to decisions to find the most efficient takeout rate structure, create high-profile events at regular intervals along the racing calendar, and run races on days and at times where the signal’s visibility was maximized in the marketplace.

Separately, James Cassity, a racing consultant, made many of the same arguments on the panel, saying that racetracks could marginally improve their revenues with a focus on the needs of their “key partners” in the simulcast marketplace. He recommended that track managers focus resolutely on post times, field sizes, and the ups and down of the various pari-mutuel pools, all well-worn strategies.

“All of those things I just mentioned do not cost anything,” Cassity said.

Then, Cassity concluded with perhaps the most stark reminder that the recommendations from the two morning panels could not have been more diametrically opposed.

“Remember your simulcast partners,” Cassity said. “They’re not your enemies. They’re your saviors. We all know that 95 percent of the action is taking place at the place that you’re not at.”