Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tale of Two Cities

--Andy Belfiore

   NYRA put out a press release late Saturday, trumpeting “huge gains” in attendance for the Wood Memorial card at Aqueduct. It sounds great, and the crowd was up 42% from last year...but there were still only 12,144 fans on hand for what was supposed to be champion Uncle Mo’s coronation as the Kentucky Derby chalk.

   Some 2,443 miles away, out in sunny California, the Santa Anita Derby lost its pre-race favorite, Premier Pegasus, to injury, and the field that went to post was so ordinary that Midnight Interlude, with no more than a maiden win to his credit, was just 13-1 when he hit the wire first. Yet, somehow, the race drew 31,253 people to the track.

   You can understand it on some level. The backdrop at Santa Anita is the picturesque San Gabriel Mountains. At the Big A? Yet another 737 lumbering out of JFK. Santa Anita is a lovely place to spend an afternoon and in Ozone Park. Enough said?

Aqueduct Grandstand

Santa Anita
   I’m sure there is more to it than that. It doesn't hurt that California, struggling with short fields, has been forced to go to a four-day race week. The Monmouth Park Elite Meet certainly proved the “less is more” theory. But would fewer racing days at Aqueduct pack ‘em into the seats? Doubtful.

   But maybe there is a way to get a few more people through the gates. When the Aqueduct casino opens later this year, the parking lot will fill up like a stocking at Christmas, jammed to the top with people who love to gamble. Why not find a way to get at least a few of them over to the track?

   Racinos generally do very little to get the slots players interested in racing, even when the racetrack and casino operators are one and the same. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed dozens of times. Tracks put on concerts and festivals to bring in the crowds, they build the casinos...then, once they have the captive audience, do nothing to get them interested in horse racing. Most slots players would be shocked if they took a wrong turn at the Lucky 7 machine and ended up outside the paddock. Who knew they had horses here??

   But wouldn’t it make a nice change from the flashing lights and clanging bells in the casino, to spend a couple of hours out in the fresh air and Ozone Park sunshine watching--and wagering on--a few races? If you’ve got a crowd anywhere near your racetrack, one that earmarks part of the paycheck for gambling, it seems like you’d do everything in your power to get their attention. Maybe it’s simplistic to think that handing out $2 betting vouchers, giving away lunch at the track or private trips to the paddock before the big races, introducing people to some of the cooler players in racing, would have a significant impact on the bottom line. But maybe the marketing geniuses could come up with something, and it wouldn’t cost much to find out. It seems to me that cooperative promotion between the casino and the racetrack has to be a good thing. I’d hate to see another opportunity to help our sport go to waste.


Robert Williams said...

Well said Andy - I like the idea of handing out vouchers inside the casino - but I'm afraid that casino management would rather have them sit right there at that slot machine for those 15 minutes...

Bill Holobowski said...

Great commentary and suggestions all around, particularly about drawing in people with free vouchers, lunch or something to that effect. Maybe some kind of slot tournaments or progressives based on the outcome of live NYRA races.