Showtime - By Evan Hammonds

While it doesn’t have the breeding and sales industry infrastructure of Keeneland, Oaklawn Park—and the town of Hot Springs, Ark.—is steeped in racing and gambling tradition. Both tracks run high-caliber meetings, feeding right into Triple Crown season.

Oaklawn’s signature closing event—the Racing Festival of the South—brings together the best of the sport, as witnessed by this past weekend. Champion filly Stellar Wind made her 2017 debut with a score in the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) and the well-heeled Ever So Clever will likely make her way to the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) off her Fantasy Stakes (G3) success April 14. In the next day’s grand finale, John Oxley’s Classic Empire returned to championship form with a gritty victory in the Arkansas Derby (G1). His success returns him to the top rung of this year’s 3-year-old male class and he’s a likely candidate for favoritism in the Run for the Roses in three weeks.

Oaklawn, like Keeneland, thrives on the on-track experience. The Cella family-owned track also has a maverick streak. Among many innovations, general manager Eric Jackson developed Instant Racing—or historical race wagering—in the late 1990s and the slot-like game has been a boon for purses in Arkansas. Historical racing has also caught fire in Kentucky, which installed the machines in 2011.

To help cultivate new fans and enhance the live experience, Oaklawn tried something this year that is genius in its simplicity and low-fi approach…and it appears to be a hit. Instead of marketing the high-reward, yet high-risk exotic bets that are hard to explain and harder to hit, the track took aim at the lowly show bet.

As covered by Frank Angst in his “Dollars and Sense” column in the April 14 edition of BloodHorse Daily, Oaklawn Park offered a sizably reduced takeout—10% instead of the standard 17% for off-track outlets—on show wagers made on track.

The thought process behind this is easy: While the large payouts on Pick 6s, Pick 5s, Pick 4s, and superfectas have their appeal, the best way to introduce new fans to racing is to have them actually cash a ticket.

Bobby Geiger, Oaklawn’s director of wagering and simulcasts, told Angst: “A lot of (patrons) are newbies and on your first trip to the racetrack, it’s just not a lot of fun if you don’t cash a ticket.

“We came up with this idea of dropping the takeout from 17% to 10% just for on-track show wagers, then promote it and see what happens. And it has far exceeded our expectations.”

What they found early on is that it was a hit with the new crowd…and the hard-cores. Through early April, show wagering was up 5%.

“One of the most popular bets this year has been the show parlay,” Geiger said. “I’ve been out in the grandstand, and there are groups all over—even seasoned players who are still making their super bets and tris—but they also have show parlays running. That component caught us a little off guard.

“Short-term it’s already been a success,” he continued. “But I don’t think we’ll have the full answer for two or three years because of all of these newbies who came out to Oaklawn and experienced racing in a different way this year. We’ll see if they become dependable race fans in the years to come. This will be a multi-year study in terms of gauging this as a success or failure.”

It might have caught Oaklawn officials off guard, but for us, it makes perfect sense. One of the reasons why sports matter is the feeling of belonging—to a particular team—and the sense of feeling connected. The sport of horse racing, with its pari-mutuel model, is a bit counter-intuitive to that with an “us against them” mentality of trying to outsmart the horseplayer next to you.

For Oaklawn to test a product that actually works for newcomers as well as for seasoned guys appears to be a winning play. Perhaps other tracks should “show” some interest. It might help boost handle and on-track attendance.

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