Stakes Sizzle - By Evan Hammonds

Originally published in the October 16, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

By Evan Hammonds 

By Evan Hammonds

The cornucopia of grade I stakes served up from coast to coast the last two weekends has offered racing fans great insight into the equine athletes preparing for the upcoming Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs. Taking a look at some of the tracks’ numbers—attendance and handle—offers the Thoroughbred industry some insight into the health of the racing game.

The three major venues of early October—Keeneland, Oak Tree at Hollywood (a first in 2010), and Belmont Park—all offer their own charms, and comparing their figures is like comparing apples to oranges to bananas, so we won’t even attempt that. However, we can look at the following attendance figures:

  • Sun-drenched Keeneland drew 17,000-plus for its opening day program, Friday, Oct. 8, then drew 22,958 for five graded stakes the following day. Those are outstanding figures, considering the World Equestrian Games were still going on and the University of Kentucky football team hosted top 10 ranked Auburn that evening.

  • For Zenyatta’s California farewell, more than 24,000 showed up Oct. 2 at Hollywood Park toting signs and giving last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner a well-deserved, rousing send off. For those who did not have the good fortune of being there, the event did play well on ESPN, which carried about a 15-minute cut in during the early evening (Eastern time).

  • At Belmont for Jockey Club Gold Cup day, a mere 9,671 were on hand for the live action. The following Saturday, 6,858 witnessed Uncle Mo’s Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and A Z Warrior take the Frizette (gr. I). Those numbers seem anemic, considering the New York metropolitan market is among the world’s largest and there appeared to be little competition from Major League Baseball or college football on either Saturday.

On the other hand, handle figures for both Belmont cards showed strength and national interest in New York Racing Association “Super Saturdays.” National handle on Gold Cup day topped $18 million, and more than $12.5 million was wagered the following Saturday.

At Belmont, attendance has flagged for years, caused perhaps in part by some of the malaise surrounding NYRA the last few years and more likely tied to the fact it’s much easier to sit at home and wager online while watching the races on a high-definition flat screen television. The strong handle figures support the theory that thousands of fans in “virtual attendance” are participating in the racing action while online.

Naheem Ghazi, head of marketing for NYRA, is a smart fellow. He figures it would take a few million dollars to move the needle on ontrack attendance. No one has that kind of coin lying around these days. Even once NYRA’s slot parlor gets underway next year at Aqueduct, there are lots of bills and IOUs to pay back. He’s doubtful his marketing budget’s needle moves any time soon.

These three different locations combined illustrate great interest in our sport. In New York a Wall Street attitude prevails. Average handle per person on track Oct. 9 was $179.55 and on Oct. 2 it was a robust $222.64.

With a heavy party atmosphere in a “tailgating” section at Keeneland for the college crowd, a day at the races in Lexington is more of a social event. The average handle per person Oct. 9 was a scant $75.45. The hope here is that these students submit their applications for the Keeneland Club after graduation.

In Southern California, star power ruled the day, bringing out the largest crowd at Hollywood Park since 2001. That’s about triple a standard weekend crowd at Hollywood and about double what a Zenyatta “retirement party” drew last year after the Breeders’ Cup. If there has been an upside to the downturn in bloodstock prices over the last few years, it’s that racing’s top players have stayed in training another season rather than being hustled off to stud.

As long as racing can maintain its ability to challenge gamblers with a high-quality game of skill that churns out eight-figure handle days, can offer a sought-after social scene, and keep some of its brightest stars in training, then the future of racing in North America remains bright. 

17 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Mary P

Hey, great article.  I don't know why the tracks don't have more "aimed at" days......aimed at woman, aimed at family's.. ...apprieciation days,....big hat days...ect....I used to go every Friday night, it was a party.  I do know big money races with big name horses will draw, but until the checkbooks expand, why not do more for the fans?

12 Oct 2010 6:15 PM
VinC

Its all about handle. OTB killed attendance at the New York tracks.

12 Oct 2010 11:50 PM
Hoofbeats

I was at Keeneland Saturday, drove in from St. Louis, my first time there. And you are so right, a social event. By the time the 10th rolled around when Gio Ponti ran there were only a few thousand real race fans left. Too bad, they missed a heck of a race.

13 Oct 2010 8:00 AM
mike

Evan,

You are so far out of touch with reality, it's comical. Racing remains in free fall with no upside, and no interest from big money.Players are bleeding under heavy takeouts and as the older generation exits the mutual windows, the game will be all boutique type meets at best.

I'm in the game 40 years, on a daily basis, and do not know too many who feel the game has any chance to survive in it's present form

Mike

13 Oct 2010 11:21 AM
steve s

the game is dead--the super fast horses don't live in America--I cant find 35 bets for the week

13 Oct 2010 2:05 PM
NancyP

Hi Evan,  You presented an interesting topic and article.  I can only speak of New York racing.  MY only out-of-state racing experience was Monmouth Park a few years ago and it was very good.  they have a lovely paddock and you can really be close to the horses.

In 2004 I finally had the time and took the opportunity to go to races, as I had loved horses since I was a kid and lived on a farm with a neighbors pasture adjacent to it.

Now I live in a "dry" state with no racing, or opportunity to get TVG, HRTV, or other racing channel.  So, The Blood-Horse is my life blood to racing.  That being said, Belmont is and was my favorite track.  It is the most beautiful and with Secretariats statue in the center of the lovely paddock and walking ring, I can't think of any place I'd rather be.  I don't know what it was like before OTB, but I have heard from the old timers that attendance was high.  It is those old timers who are mainly in attendance today.  They are the die-hard racing who still want to see the flesh and blood horse.  They will leave their seats, the cafeterias to go take a look at the horse and then place their bets.  When the Triple Crown is on the line, or Belmont Stakes day features headliners such as Jazil, Rags To Riches, Curlin or Rachel Alexandra attendance is high.  The drawing power is The Horse!  Things seemed to get worse when NYRA was fighting with the State to retain its franchise.  Prior to all of those troubles they had wonderful give away days - hats, umbrellas, chairs, t-shirts, etc., Ladies Day, etc.  But the fight and hard times related to the franchise did not help - especially at Aqueduct and the parking situation that developed there.  I'm not surprised at the drop in attendance at Belmont in the last 2-3 years as NYRA has begun to gut the Grade 1 races from Belmont and move them up to Saratoga.  Without those Grade 1 races at Belmont it is a no brainer that attendance would drop.  As I stated in a blog sometime ago after reading a development report on the NYS gaming website, my speculation is that NYRA is preparing to give-up Aqueduct and Belmont (given new development plans for apts, shopping, etc. and racing as a side-line with low level racing) and retain only Saratoga as its sole racing jurisdiction because it attracts the elite of the sport and vacationers, therefore attendance is high.  It will probably sustain them and make them more viable.

My other thought is that for decades racing in NY did not market itself well, or didn't feel it needed to.  Unless Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Cigar were running, I can't ever remember hearing or reading about those races until it popped up on the evening TV news at 6:00pm after the race was over!

I was at the track every Saturday, with my camera in hand to take their pictures.  Except for when I had a dream about Big Brown and saw Beautiful Eight Belles on the big screen at Belmont before the Derby, I had never placed a bet. She paid me well, but lost her life in the process.  I'm there for the horse - first tier to bottom tier.

The other thing that hurt Belmont's attendance in 2009, when I was there for Stakes day, was the ban on drinking in the backyard by the paddock.  A lot of the younger generation congregated there for the day - til the end of the day.  I don't know if that ban was extended to Saratoga in 2009, as it was the first year I was unable to visit there.  Previously, Saratoga had the similar congregation of the younger generation drinking at will wherever they pleased!  So, perhaps you know the answer to that question regarding drinking and Saratoga.  However, people were drinking freely and as much as they could hold or wished to in the grandstand and clubhouse.

So, that is my two-cents worth. I fear for Belmont and its rich history, Secretariat's statue and Ruffians grave in the beautiful in-field where she has rested all these years and remembered lovingly by all her fans.

Giants have thundered and left their history there for all to remember on any given race day.

13 Oct 2010 10:07 PM
GunBow

I was in the paddock at Hollywood Park on Oct 2nd and overheard Doug O'Neil talking about the large crowd(mainly to see Zenyatta).  His point was that it was good to see that it was still POSSIBLE for racetracks, even Hollywood Park, to draw large and enthusiastic crowds.

The fact it is still possible, that horse racing still has a pulse, is certainly a positive.  The challenge is to make days like that a more common occurence.  The problem for Hollywood Park and other tracks is that transcendent stars like Zenyatta don't come around often and even when they do they are not running every day.

13 Oct 2010 11:07 PM
Giddyup

The horse racing industry could learn at lot from NASCAR which escaped the redneck wilderness and now has international appeal. Horse racing fans are an aging demographic and unless the younger sports fans are won over there is no future.

14 Oct 2010 8:17 AM
goodwin

Horse racing in America needs a national governing body, like Japan, and the UK and anywhere else. These little kangaroo courts in each state certainly do not help it.

14 Oct 2010 11:05 AM
Convene

Just as a thought ... what a sad reflection on today's society that people can't go and enjoy a day's racing without unlimited drinking - indeed that they can't enjoy themselves without drinking. What ever happened to having fun cold sober?

Now I've gotten that off my chest, I do think "event" and themed days are a great idea, offering things of interest to specific demographics - but I also think much more has to be done to make these speciallized fans fall in love with the horses and the game. Let's face it - we dedicated fans go to the races because we love to watch good horses run. We wager too (some of us lots, some of us less as finances dictate), but what really brings us is the horses. There are lots of other competitors for the gamblers' dollars and wagering on racing does take some skill; it's not "easy" like a lottery - a significant factor in an era where everything has to be easy or no one will do it. We need to present the horses as the real stars of the show and make the public fall in love with them. Look how many people turn out to see Zenyatta and Rachel! They don't do it so they could wager (altho plenty of them do!). They do it because those two ladies captured the public's hearts. The banners all through the stands and the standing ovations prove that! In the old days, everyone knew Swaps and Seabiscuit and Secretariat and Kelso. How many non-race people know Blame or even Lookin' at Lucky and Paddy O'Prado - and I think that's very sad. It's a terrible marketing boo-boo.

Where I live, there are no racetracks. Woodbine is 200 miles away and Fort Erie (which used to be my back yard) is now farther away than that, so all my racing is HPItv and a couple of network "crown" races - but I'm still a fan and I can contribute my dollars via my computer. Now if the tracks and the industry participants could just reap the benefits the ADW outfits do, I don't think we'd be having these problems. The expensive show is put on by an industry that sees the smallest portion of the revenues - and that's just wrong. Some of the folks who can sell snow to Eskimos need to pursuade some local newspapers, whether daily or weekly, to carry a racing column once a week - and I know we have writers who could create the content to fill 'em. PETA is highly vocal and taints our sport with half-truths and out and out lies. It's up to us to prove to the public that our horses are loved, cared for, treasured and even pampered - and that horses race mostly because it's what they like to do. That will draw 'em to the tracks even on ordinary days: just to watch the horses run.

Thanks for offering something positive amid all the doom and gloom. I too believe the glass is half full, not half empty - but unless we can win people's hearts the doomsayers may sadly prove right. And that's something I really don't want to see!

15 Oct 2010 10:56 AM
Ghostzapper

"The problem for Hollywood Park and other tracks is that transcendent stars like Zenyatta don't come around often and even when they do they are not running every day."

Not to mention when a star barely leaves their home state and no one else in the country cares.

15 Oct 2010 1:04 PM
Old Yeller

This is encouraging news. I myself live quite far from any of the major tracks and am lucky to attend a big race once or twice a year. For me the internet has allowed me to become a full time fan. But there's nothing like being there. I think a big misconception amoung the general public is that they have no idea what a day at the races is. A whole day of fun. Somehow because a race is say 2 min. long people are missing the boat. The Kentucky Derby's slogan "The most exciting 2 minuite's in sport ", has possibly fueled this misunderstanding. A day at the races is just that a four or five hour outing unlike any other sport, horsefans talk to each other, you meet people from all over, it is an experince unlike any other sport. Horseracing has to be marketed properly to show off it's special place in sporting entertainment.

16 Oct 2010 11:09 AM
thederbydream.com

I remember as a teenager going with my dad to oaklawn and the huge crowds on the weekends and attendance of sometimes over 60k for the Arkansas Derby. AS everyone is saying with simulcasting coming down the pike people didnt have to drive in from Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana they played closer to home. I love this sport and I am 100% invested with my time and money so I really hope we can get our act together and figure away to market our sport to the mainstream. Our sport is tremendous fun for folks to get involved with. I hope Secretariat will spark a fire in a younger generation to check out our sport. We need fresh thinking and not the same old same old. Forums like this get people talking and when people do thats where great ideas come from.

16 Oct 2010 2:54 PM
Barry

Why go to the tracks, when you can see and bet on a race at home thru youbet.com. and other betting sites.

16 Oct 2010 11:59 PM
sophiekea

Racing has too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Too many old farts running the business and nepotism to boot. NY is shameful. I have heard way too many people say to me when I tell them I have a horse or I'm going to the races,"where is Aqueduct, Belmont,etc?" That is really sad, especially since the New York City area has so much money and people!!

NY racing has done nothing to bring people to the tracks. How about making the backyard at Belmont child friendly with a carousel? How about signage on the main highways? How about making the place comfy for everyone. I love racing, I will go no matter what but most people I have brought to the races havent returned because its not modern enough and just blah!!

NY racing should be ashamed of itself. Its let a beautiful sport turn into a joke that only a few people get the punchline. Keep on patting each other on the back. Pretty soon you wont have a shirt to put on your back. The casino will save you for a while but your nepotism and old boy game will die unless you change and bring the youth into it and make it average folk friendly and modernize. Thats just my opinion.

17 Oct 2010 9:09 AM
jimmy lit

Oh how I long for the days of the old "Belmont Fall Championship Meet" when EVERY Saturday you'd see the likes of Secreteriat,Forego,Ruffian, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid competing against the nations best in pursuit of Eclipse Awards !! Not a seat to be had, looking to get a glimpse of the sports' greatest stars in the paddock, looking for a good vantage point from which you could see the Marlboro Cup, woodward or Jockey Club Gold Cup ( 2 MILES !!!)!!no racetrack or race meet has suffered as Belmont has as a result of the Breeders' Cup ! The sports best athletes MAY race race 4 or % times a year (Boys at Tosconova AND Uncle Mo both make their 3rd starts in the BC !)!! The athletes are so fragile at this point (breed anyone to anything and all the drugs (legal and illegal !)that the games best are 1 in 5 to make it through a decent campaign ! Put it all together and you have an industry in serious decline and no amount of slot $$ will turn it around !take a page from the Japanese and europeans and turn the ship back in the right direction ! no drugs And a ZERO tolerance policy for offenses and take the state beurocracy (NY State !! filthy political $$ hungy HACKS !!) and privatize the game putting the sport and the fans first ! Never happen in my lifetime unfortunately !!!  

17 Oct 2010 9:55 PM
Convene

Barry - I dunno about anyone else but I go because I like the smell of leather and horses, the aura of excitement, the thunder of hoofbeats on the ground, the chance to feast my eyes on the horses live and looking back at me. I only have TV horses now and I know exactly how much I'm missing. Betting is fine - but hey, it's the thrill of the game and simulcast just doesn't cut it!

18 Oct 2010 12:01 AM

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