Looking Like We Care - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the February 23, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell

“If your facility does not meet the standards that (fans) come to expect in their daily lives, they’re not going to come back.” – Russ Simons, managing partner at Venue Solutions Group.

Though spoken in 2009 at the annual University of Arizona Racing Symposium, Simons’ words still deliver a relevant and sobering message for the Thoroughbred racing industry. In too many cases our sport is trying to attract new fans with grossly outdated facilities.

The message horse racing is sending to new visitors with its dingy facilities, poor concessions, little fan education, and grandstands littered with losing pari-mutuel tickets is that we don’t care enough about our sport. If racetracks look like they don’t care, why should the new fan? We know the answer from Simons: They won’t.

Pimlico Race Course is the poster child for badly needed renovation, but interestingly its home state of Maryland also happens to offer some inspiration for turning things around.

The lesson horse racing can learn from Maryland is how to best use supplemental revenue from casinos. We need to keep in mind that casino dollars are indeed supplemental and will not lead to long-term growth if we only use them to boost purses. Higher purses are important and help keep owners in the game, but purses alone don’t improve the quality of the racing experience.

Maryland has taken the right approach by mandating that a portion of casino revenue go to a Racetrack Facility Renewal Account. According to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, video lottery terminal revenue for purses is projected at $37.5 million in fiscal year 2013, $71.9 million in fiscal year 2015, and $82.6 million in fiscal year 2017. The racetrack improvement fund would earn $13.4 million in fiscal year 2013, $25.5 million in fiscal year 2015, and $29.2 million in fiscal year 2017.

Improving our racetracks so they become true entertainment venues will help attract fans and grow handle. Forget the Frank Stronach dream of surrounding a grandstand with concert halls and retail shops; we’re talking about just making the main grandstand itself a nicer place to be.  

Look at what’s happened at Ascot since its renovation.

“A significant competitor of Ascot is Wimbledon,” said Paul Roberts, author and architecture consultant, referring to the internationally renowned Grand Slam tennis site in London. “People who are casually attending an event, going with their friends, when you look at the quality of facilities, you have to compete at that level. Ascot is driven by that leisure market. Racetrack attendance in England is increasing because what they’re offering is attractive to wagering fans, people who enjoy racing, casual fans, and people interested in the environment.”

Casino revenue currently is pouring into purse accounts, but that revenue stream is fickle. Casino revenue will always be vulnerable when states need to balance their budgets or look for ways to fund new programs without raising taxes. Racing needs to invest the money available now into improvements that will pay dividends over the long haul, like our competitors. Between 1989 and 2005, more than $53 billion was spent on capital improvements on U.S. casinos or in adding slot machines to racetracks. What a difference we would see if just a slice of that had been put toward making racing more inviting.

Racetracks and new modern stadiums are like neighboring restaurants; one is a dive and the food (the sport product) is good, but next door is a brighter place with more comfortable booths and entertainment that is just as good. Which is the fan going to choose?

Simons did offer some encouraging words. He said a racetrack doesn’t need a $100 million rooftop-to-apron renovation to improve its appeal. Smaller things such as offering card processors at concession stands, improved cleanliness, good lighting, better food, and graphics can make a big difference. And deliver a strong message to new fans.

7 Comments

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Indiana Race Fan

Better concessions is a given, but I would like to add better camera technology. It's so frustrating to watch the tv monitors and still not be able to identify your favorite horse. I love watching European races since their camera angles are so much better than any US track.

20 Feb 2013 7:20 PM
Bill Two

You're on the money with this one.  I live 10 miles away from Pimlico and have been an avid horse racing fan for almost 50 years.  I usually either travel to Laurel to take in the races or drive up I83 to York PA to visit the Penn National simulcast facility.  Both are far preferable to Pimlico.  If the facility is upgraded to make it more hospitable I will definitely go back to Pimlico.  I have many fond memories of attending the races there and would like to do so again someday.

21 Feb 2013 11:54 AM
kristies2

The other issue, and I know you can't point this out because it's not PC, is that Pimlico is in the absolute worst area of the city.

21 Feb 2013 11:18 PM
fuzzbert

Ask any horseman and breeder in Maryland - alittle too late.  Pimlico is in SHAMBLES.  Not too many folks in Annapolis really care.  And the ones that did are no longer in office.  Shame on us.

23 Feb 2013 10:42 AM
Scpartee

My husband and I attended the 2012 Preakness, and although we had a lot of fun attending our first Triple Crown race, we were absolutely appalled at the condition of the Pimlico facility. Our home track in Texas, Lone Star Park, evidently has us really spoiled with its lovely, spectator-friendly facility. Pimlico, on the other hand, was "whipped cream coving a manure pile" and if it hadn't been for the Preakness being run there, I doubt I would, ever set foot in the facility again. I hope the state of Maryland does a good job repairing (or just replacing) the dilapidated grandstand so the track will attract decent clientele again.

24 Feb 2013 1:28 PM
leon

Right on the money. The public show that many times and your article on the Blood-Horse on June 30, 2012 "Mid-Market Mettle" the survey show 17.9% identified Tampa Bay Downs as their top choice and 10.3% as a second choice even without the revenues from the slots. On the other extreme Calder show only 5.9%. We have racetrack that take acre of the costumers/fans like Keeneland, Oaklawn, Tampa and a few others and racetracks where the racetrack's owners do not care about horse racing, like Churchill Downs and add leaders of the Thoroughbred's  organizations that do not care enough, know enough or do not have the time to worry about.  

03 Mar 2013 3:09 PM
Bonniem

As someone who deeply cares about the future of Thoroughbred racing in Northern California, here are a few reasons I see as to why Golden Gate Fields in Albany, California is failing to attract a new permanent fan base and some suggestions for improvement.  

Dollar Day on Sunday by far draws the biggest crowd.  General admission, general parking, programs beer, sodas  and hot dogs all cost a  dollar. The remaining 3 days the stands are practically deserted. Even on Sunday, fans cannot sit in many of the most coveted grandstand seats, on the finish line. Birds, mostly pigeons, roost in the rafters above the grandstand. The top rows of the grandstand at the finish line are typically too soiled for customers to use. Bird control technology has existed for years. In the interest of customer experience, at the very least, GGF needs to resolve this issue.

Dollar Day attracts many fans, especially younger ones, who want to bet, but can’t figure out how to bet.  This information used to be published in the programs, but was removed for some reason.  The betting machines, especially the ones on the second floor, frequently jam or go down. There is one employee behind the row of machines on each floor who is there to help, but there should be more.  When a jam or crash occurs, fans appear to not know where to ask for help or the one employee is busy.  New fans do not even know you have to purchase a voucher before using the betting machines!  Couldn’t this little bit of information be presented on a small sticker next to each machine? Or even better, a track representative, clearly identifiable, could be stationed in this area to answer customer questions.

What if these fans knew the difference between win, place, and show; what the odds meant; and that you can bet ten cent superfectas?  What if new fans knew they could get very close to the horses in saddling paddock area?  Wouldn’t they be more likely to return and help increase the handle? A small obscurely marked “Information” room next to the gift shop, not nearly close enough to the mutual machines, does exist. However, its purpose appears to be Overnight distribution. I rarely see fans asking questions there.  

When a race is run, it’s very difficult to view the action. On the second floor, people stand up blocking others, which is understandable. However, these fans could be more spread out if the top grandstand seats were free of bird droppings.  On the ground floor, many fans try to watch by standing along the fence next to the track and looking up. Fortunately Michael Wrona does a spectacular job in calling the races. A TV screen is inserted into the tote board, but the picture is blurry and it’s not much larger than today's home televisions. A large video monitor in the infield would make visiting Golden Gate Fields a lot more exciting for people.    

Sometimes there is an especially large superfecta payoff.  Why not advertise these payoffs on the huge neon GGF sign next to the freeway?  I’ve suggested this idea to management quite a while ago but only received an autoresponse email.  There is of course the problem of unhealthy, poorly prepared food in several places around the racetrack. A new "Coffee Hut" was installed, which is pretty much unpatronized. Perhaps a food spot with reasonably healthy food choices would suit the more health concious patrons? At the very least, the wife and children who have been forced to come to the track with dad on Fathers Day or his birthday would have a healthy food option.

In 2011, GGF management put a tremendous amount of time and resources in its bid to attract Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to use Golden Gate Fields as its second campus.  It lost that bid. Do the owners of Golden Gate Fields really care about its future? Or do they want GGF to die a natural death now that the grounds can’t be sold for real estate?

13 Mar 2013 4:28 PM

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