The Summer Places to Be - By Evan Hammonds

 (Originally published in the August 13, 2011 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 Those seeking escape from the hair-raising roller-coaster ride Wall Street is on right now, or those wondering whether the country is back in recession, have found a place to escape all their worries: the racetrack.

The early results from the big boutique meets in sunny Southern California and upstate New York offer some encouraging numbers. Both Del Mar and Saratoga have ramped up their promotional programs in a battle for the entertainment/discretionary dollar this summer, and their efforts seem to be paying off.

At Del Mar, just north of San Diego, where one can catch the early daily double after a late morning on the beach, little promotion needs to be done for its opening-day program. This year’s turnstile count, 46,588, was a single-day record for the track and marked the eighth straight year of increased attendance for the opener. On July 30, Del Mar hosted a “full-tilt” reggae festival headed by Ziggy Marley and drew 32,000-plus.
Over this past weekend the popular rock group Weezer headlined a show Aug. 6 that also featured a Beer Fest, Chili Cook-Off, and, of course, the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) that brought in a crowd of 36,815. In a redux of the 2003 promotional match-up that pitted jockeys Julie Krone and Pat Valenzuela in the “Battle of the Sexes,” a “Battle of the Exes” match race pitting riders, and former fiancés, Chantal Sutherland and Mike Smith drew a lot of buzz for the Aug. 7 program.

Through the first two weeks, attendance is up 4.8% with handle figures that roughly mirror last year’s—solid business so far.

And there’s more on tap as a “Gourmet Food Truck Festival” is slated for Aug. 20 where the Surf Meets the Turf. Much more upscale than the “roach coaches” a generation ago, food truck contests—as featured on Food Network and other cable programming—have proved to be a big draw. Similar promotions were such a hit during the Santa Anita stand in Los Angeles that they are being tested in the San Diego area.

Saratoga Race Course succeeds on many levels. There is the romance of the past, embodied in the creaking wooden structure and architectural details. You fit in no matter what you wear or how much you push through the windows.

This year the New York Racing Association has gone into attack mode with promotions beyond the normal, spinner-friendly hat and T-shirt giveaways. The first week of August alone featured a Mid-Summer St. Patrick’s Day presented by Bailey’s promo, a “Rivalry Day” that featured Mickey “Mick the Quick” Rivers of the New York Yankees and Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd of the Boston Red Sox, and the Fasig-Tipton Festival of Racing that preceded its select yearling sale.

There were 34,412 on hand for the Aug. 6 Test Stakes and Whitney Invitational Handicap (both gr. I). The Whitney, the centerpiece of the six-week stand, brought together the best of the lot of this year’s handicap division.

The early returns show attendance is up 1.3% over 2010 figures while all-sources handle is up 1.6%.

We realize Del Mar and Saratoga represent the top of the market. However, for racing in general to be successful, it must thrive along the top line. This year’s promotional push reminds us that sometimes it takes more than just stellar racing to bring fans out to the track.

Comeback Cup

A stellar reason to come out to the track in northern Kentucky this fall is the return of the Kentucky Cup program, which has now been set for Sept. 24. Once a nice springboard to the Breeders’ Cup, the Cup went into hiding last year following purse cuts to Turfway Park.

Our hats are off to WinStar Farm for its investment in the local industry and local economy. The five quality stakes add a nice bridge from the summer season to Keeneland’s fall meet in October.

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