Thursday, March 31, 2011

A day at the Racino with the kids?

I like horse racing. A lot. I enjoy a good day at the track and have visited my share of them. My wife, however, is borderline obsessed. A little background: she used to write full-time for one of the big industry publications, freelanced for many years more, and also was an advertising copywriter for a Thoroughbred ad agency for several years. We've bred a few horses and she’s been on the boards of two major industry organizations. The first time she’d ever visited Lexington, she called me after seeing Calumet and told me she wasn't returning home unless I agreed to move to Lexington. I moved (she's convincing; what can I say?). I tell you that because, as we now travel full-time around the country, one of the goals of our trip was to visit every racetrack in North America. We haven't met that goal and have, at times, gotten pretty discouraged along the way.

Several months ago we were in Delaware and one day while I was working she "tried" to visit Delaware Park with our three young kids. She set off in high spirits and it looked to be a fun family day, just like we were accustomed to at Keeneland or Churchill Downs, our 'home tracks,' so to speak. Unfortunately, neither of us had been to a casino-based track before and didn't realize the ramifications of going to one with children.

While I can’t speak for other racinos, my wife learned pretty quickly you can't see a race at Delaware Park if you have kids. There is no possible way (that any available employee or security guard knew about -- and she asked several) to get from the entrance to the apron without going through the casino. Kids aren’t allowed to set foot in the casino, not even to pass through it on the way to the grandstand. There was a playground they could have gone to on the first turn, but she wasn’t there for a playground. She simply loves racing and wanted to enjoy a few races from the historic grandstand. One of the track employees directed her to an "entrance" that she had to walk with the kids (in the rain!) all the way around the gargantuan casino/grandstand to get to, but they turned out to be locked doors. She just wanted to show the kids an historic track where a lot of people cut their teeth in racing, my boss included, and finally just left after two hours of frustration.

I’m not trying to bash Delaware Park, but from what I understand people used to rave about that track as being one of the most family-friendly around. It now seems anti-family. I suspect the problem Delaware exhibited here is not only confined to Delaware, but to racinos in general. It seems like some tracks just hold horse racing to have a casino. That's too bad.

Not for you horseplayers..., photo.
This was all brought back to mind by a note yesterday from a friend who is a long-time handicapper. In fact, I'm betting the only day he won't have a bet down on a race somewhere is the day after he dies, because he'll have been to drive-through betting at Keeneland the morning of. Anyhow, he mentioned another racino issue. He attended a handicapping contest last fall at Louisiana Downs where he'd paid a pretty significant entry fee to play. His complaint was that on the horse side, water and soft drinks were $2 a bottle and they made you pay for every little thing. In the next room over, in the same building on the casino side, they couldn't seem to give everything away fast enough, including that same bottled water and soft drinks. In fact, if a casino player tried to enter the horseplayers’ area, security made them throw their water or other drink in the trash. As he wrote, “If a new fan were to go through this, wouldn’t they choose the casino over the race track?”

Seems like a bit of disconnect to me. I'm not saying that horseplayers should be given drinks and food all day, but if the two are combined in the same building, at least make the two worlds a little more level.

I’m not sure there will ever be a right answer to the racino v. casino v. racetrack question, but I think it would be nice for management to let the people who want to go to the track, just go to the track, and for the people who want to play blackjack, just play blackjack. As for me, I just want to be able to take my kids to the races. How can we expect to build future support for this sport if we can't do that?

-- Robert Williams


Sue Finley said...

Very well said, Robert. I deal with a lot of racetracks--every day--and while I don't want to single anyone out, by and large, the ones with racinos do a very good job of hiding the fact that they even have racing. If I'm looking for a phone number for a racing official at a track, and I go to their website and see a big racino splash screen, I know I'm in the for the fight of my life to find a phone number for the simulcast director...or a phone number for anyone.

One observation, though. Jill's story is a lot like one from my childhood. I grew up in New England and my parents took my brother and I to Rockingham when we were about your kids ages. Kids weren't allowed in the racetrack, but they thought that we could stand on the far turn and watch the horses go by. A security guard came by and told us we'd have to get back in the car, or we'd scare the horses...

So racing has always had a hard time understanding where its new fan base was going to come from, in my mind.

JerseyTom said...

Robert: Word of advice. If you bring kids you need to use the parking lot/entrance off Route 7 opposite the casino. It leads right into the paddock/picnic area/grandstand. Actually it's the best way to access the place even if you don't have kids and just want to attend the races or simulcast. ... There's not much they can do about the casino restriction for kids, it's state law. ... If you're in that area again I suggest you go back. It really is one of the nicest tracks in the country to watch the races from an asthetic standpoint.

Stephanie said...

I agree. I frequent Prarie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, and while there are a couple different ways for kids to make there way to the apron the looks from the security guards says it all. If you want to go to the "granstand"(buffet) you must walk across about 5 feet of floor on the level the casino is on. I can't tell you how many times I have been haggled with my daughter because we have to walk across this patch of floor to reach the next escalator. Honestly I don't take her anymore. I used to take her to the Derby simulcast and other days but forget it. She is welcome at a backside tour but not to watch the races! I mean how are you going to teach youngesters about the game if we do everything in our power to turn them away?

Robert Williams said...

@Sue - absolutely right. How can we continue to survive without promoting to the younger generation?

@JerseyTom - thanks for the suggestion, and if I ever get back there I'll use it. My problem there is that nobody at the track that day had that suggestion - so how many just walk away? I know the casino restriction is a state law, but can't there be an easy way to say - the apron and start/finish line are not part of the casino - here's how we can get you there?

@Stephanie - I understand. Its the reason that I won't go back to Atlantic City and choose Vegas everytime. In AC you can't even go in with kids to use the restroom - they've got a guard that stands at the door. In fact, we had a hard time getting from our hotel room to the boardwalk, and had to go outside, and around the block to get there. Same solution as above - it should be in the law to force those businesses to provide hassle-free access to those locations that are not part specifically part of the casino.

Brian said...

Parx Racing and Finger Lakes are very similar to what you described, Robert.