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Symposium: Speakers offer contrasting suggestions to struggling racetracks
By Matt Hegarty
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.”
There is a limit of time that any fan is willing to dedicate to follow a sport. Dan Singer stated in the McKinsey and Company's report last year to the Jockey Club that, "Racing is in a fight against dozens of other sports for an oversaturated TV audience, and a fight against almost 1,000 casinos for the scarce dollars of American gamblers." Popular professional sports associations try to gauge the extent to which people can devote time and interest to their events and then schedule their events accordingly, whereas racing does nothing of the sort. Singer goes on, "In our view, no other major sport has lost control of its distribution to the extent that racing has." By flooding simulcast sites and racing channels with races, racetracks are content with sharing however much handle they can get on a given race. Racing has opted for quantity over quality, thus, as Mark Simon described it: "dulling the senses of fans."
Number 1, FIRE all the EXECUTIVES running our Race Tracks in the U.S. that can't count to 10 without taking "Their Shoes off" that would CUT-OUT 99% of the DEAD-WOOD and Start this GREAT Game in the RIGHT direction. #2. Instead of OFFERING "Cheap Gifts" to LURE People to attend, Do what LAS VEGAS did 50 years ago, FEED them for pennies, instead they "GOUGH" the Public on EVERYTHING they can. They DEFEND their Prices,buy saying a Hot Dog at a FOOTBALL game is $5.00 so WE are NOT out of line. THIS IS NOT a FOOTBALL game. Lower the Prices by TAKING the Money away from CHEAP GIFTS. $3.75 for an ICE-CREAM CONE...Come on you DOPES. #3. FIRE all the TELLERS that HAVEN''T Smiled in the PASTED 20 years, that would ELIMINATE 90% of them, REPLACE them with a Machine that does a BETTER job... #4. GET real SERIOUS about DRUGS, not just the HORSES but EVERYONE involved, BEFORE it's TOO LATE Management Wake the Hell-up. #5. Get rid of ALL the NIT-WIT reaitives that are in a POSITION that requires any THINKING at all.... #6. Make SURE somone that ACTUALLY Plays the HORSES gets SOME time to SPEAK at these DAMN Symposium's....Instead of SOME BUM in a 3 piece suit having a FREE lunch with the "OUT OF TOUCH" Owner of the Track.... # I'm as MAD AS HELL and I'm TIRED of Taking it. This Game has ENDURED the WORST possible Management of ANY industry in the WORLD. No other Business could SSURVIVE under this KIND of Leadership....What a SHAME.
Owners of tracks do not care if 5 people or 50.000 show up all they care about is handle.Pating for everything is a joke.We pay to get in, a form a program, to park, a good seat and on and on.I use the SAMS so i do not have to look at the mad tellers who are over paid.Tellers may be a thing of the past.SAMS are very nice and do not try to beat you when they can.NYRA does not care about the fans.I went to their NHC contest and for the last 3 races we had to read the form with a flash light.7 of the 9 spotlights were out great odds this cost 400.00 $$$$. Great customer service.
Its virtually impossible to compare racing in Asia and England to the USA. At Royal Ascot thousands of fans pay between 20-200 pounds sterling just to attend the races. The track makes a huge amount of money from admission, dining, parking, and from the bookmakers. Its a tradition we don't have in this country with the exception of Derby and Oaks Day. The Royal Ascot June meet starts on a Tuesday and ends on a Friday. And the July meet is 3 race cards. They race a lot less but the crowds are huge, the entire country stops. The sad reality is there are a lot of tracks where you would never take your family like Hollywood and Aqueduct. We need less racing and consolidation. The racino money is simply keeping more tracks open than they should. If ask most racino operators they would rather not race at all.
To concentrate on simulcasting because of the cost efficency is short-sighted and detrimental in the long-run. If every track administration decided that route, soon there would be nothing left to simulcast.
Here are three things the U.S. racing industry can do to improve the sport and the wagering action: 1) Consolidate the industry. There are too many tracks, which leads to too many races, too many horses, and far too much animal abuse. The abuse of racing horses is a singular issue that prevents many from endorsing the sport. As part of this consolidation, there will be more focus on each race, more scrutiny on trainers and vets, with the cheaters caught more often. Further: this will increase the frequency of marquee races at each active track, rather then increasing the frequency of $5,000 claimers and dead horses. 2) Push for legalized gambling in this country and in every state. I bet that most racing executives lobby for the continued ban, at the federal level, of gambling and in particular sports gambling. They view the individual consumer as a restricted source of money with a limited bankroll, and as more slot machines get built, fewer exactas are bet. There is some truth to that, but they have to realize the movement is on its way. States want that gambling revenue. Racing executives should be pushing to get a quality race book in every casino in the country. Additionally, they have to push each state to develop off-track betting systems to compete with the online wagering companies. When I am in New England, and the Breeders Cup is on, I want to go to a bar, watch the races, and bet with my friends. There is nowhere I can do that. In New York, they have Qwik Bet systems and a lot of bars which creates for a great atmosphere for race wagering. When the Triple Crown is on, I go to local bar, bring my PPs, drink some Guinness, and post up for the day. This option should be available for everyone, everywhere, in the country. 3) Get more people involved with owning, racing, and breeding thoroughbreds. If you REALLY want to get a movement started, get casual race fans invested in more than just wagering. If I am gonna spend $1K a year on race bets, maybe I'd rather have the ability to spend $500 on bets and $500 on an ownership stake. I know there are programs for that now, but that is not pushed by the racing industry, especially the tracks. You want more people to show up at your track? If they owned a stake in a horse, even a .01% stake, I bet they show up.
Except for the dim-witted idea of banning online wagering, everyone has touched on a good idea. The sport has to clean up its image and the tracks have to make a better effort of welcoming fans to their facilities. Lower takeout would be great, but that's tough with cash-strapped state governments. Maybe DRF can step forward with a series of articles on what's working and what's not in the sport, and serve as a sounding board for the fans. Otherwise, we can just wait for the New York Times to come out with their next opinion about racing.
I agree that handle isn't the way to judge a racetrack. People go to football games and basketball games and many other sporting events and don't bet a dime. You shouldn't have to bet at the track to have a good time. People should be able to go there and just enjoy the horses and atmosphere. Attendence is the best way to judge a track. Online betting has killed track attendence. Now people no longer have to go to the track to bet. If all tracks would agree to ban online gambling then attendence would go through the roof. We also need our stars to stick around longer. Just look at how many people would turn out just to see Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra.
Trainers drugging horses is the biggest problem this sport has. The races are fixed. The past performances don't mean anything anymore because any one or two of the running lines you're looking at for any horse in the race might be from when the horse was running on drugs. And which horses are running on drugs today? You can't handicap that and therefore you CAN'T WIN. Pace, class, speed figures, current form, workouts, etc, all of it means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING when some crooked trainer has injected something in a horse. Trainers are outright STEALING money out of the pockets of the fans every time they drug a horse. You think people are that stupid? You let Dick Dutrow continue to train and run horses when he's been caught drugging horses a million times. And Dutrow is only the tip of the iceberg. The people running these tracks and this sport are idiots. Plain and simple. If you're dumb enough to bet on this sport, all you're doing is donating money to the bank accounts of corrupt trainers, owners, and track insiders. Everybody knows it but nothing is done about it. I used to spend hours studying past performances. It's not happening anymore. It's a complete waste of my time and money and I wish I would have never done it.
First, let me say that I'm amazed that those who run the Symposium still have the gall to hold such a bogus event. Going back over the years, its quite depressing to consider all of the half-witted ideas that have been advanced. from Andy Stronach and his virtual racing to Keith Chamblin and countless embarassing initiatives of the NTRA and Breeders' Cup. Now we have Paul Roberts, another dreamer who has somehow persuaded the powers that be in horse racing that he is the person to lead the sport of Kings out of the wilderness. If it wasn't so sad it would be laughable. The simple solution to horse racing's problems has got nothing to do with ethereal experiences, watching Frankel plod around the revolting concrete paddock that is what Ascot's smart guys think is an improvement on the old and charming paddock under the trees, that on a hot June day would provide solace and shelter to overheated racegoers, in their toppers and tails. No..its all about presenting our game in an inviting way to a new audience. And, until that happens, the greatest game will continue to go down the drain, while charlatans like Paul Roberts utter fatuous advice and comiserations at the graveside.
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