I became a horse racing fan when my dad would take my brother and I out to the track on Saturday afternoons. Dad would get us a ticket on grass horses trained by Charlie Whittingham and ridden by Bill Shoemaker, and hopefully my brother and I would split the winnings.
If we would have had to sit through a 14-race, seven hour marathon such as last Saturday’s Summit of Speed card at Gulfstream Park, would we have become life-long racing fans? I doubt it.
As young racing fans we looked forward to seeing the Met Mile at Belmont Park on Memorial Day. The Fourth of July meant the American Handicap on turf was the feature at Hollywood Park. We knew the present you opened the day after Christmas was opening day at Santa Anita.
The business of horse racing these days points to Saturdays as easily the best time to lure the horseplayer wagering dollar. Tracks need to draw attention to their simulcast signals since on-track attendance is no longer the major focus when it comes to handle, so they bundle most of their major Stakes races into selected key race days and cram as many races into those cards as possible.
Jackpot carryover pools have proven popular to players looking for a life-changing score and a proven way to increase handle. Instead of funding a pool with seed money, however, most tracks expect the horseplayers to fund the pools themselves by withholding part of the daily handle to be paid out only when there is a single ticket winner or a mandatory payout day.
Churchill Downs has taken that format to another level. The Louisville track runs a regular $2 Pick Six wager through Kentucky Derby week. The Kentucky Derby cards are traditionally deep in numbers and provide a tough Pick Six sequence that more often than not creates a massive Pick Six carryover.
Instead of letting players who have previously invested in the Pick Six go after that entire pool the next racing day, Churchill Downs the last couple of years has switched the Pick Six format the next racing day to a $.20 minimum Single Six format with a jackpot to any horseplayer who can be the lone winning ticket holder.
How does Churchill Downs kick off the wager? They use 50% of any Pick Six carryover from Kentucky Derby Day to seed the “jackpot” pool, and the other 50% as a regular carryover into the Single Six.
Racetracks saw a spike in attendance in the last decade using food trucks, concerts, craft brew festivals, and chili cook-offs to draw new “racing fans” to the track. These events had an immediate positive effect in on-track attendance numbers and food and beverage sales, but the per capita wagering numbers tumbled. And do those “fans” really come back to the track for a regular day of racing?
A few years back Santa Anita decided to raise prices in their box seats sections asserting there was a demand for those premium seat locations. Many decades-long season-seat holders were offended and decided to not renew their seats. The fallout was that many regulars found other ways to watch and wager on the races without the expense of going to the track.
Now the ushers that have long manned those box seat sections at Santa Anita work weekends only, with no ushers at all on weekdays. It is hard to make a living working two days a week.
I understand the difficulties these days of running a racetrack. I understand the costs to maintain the facilities, the increased labor costs, and the options horseplayers have when and where they decide to play. I understand the competition for each wagering dollar.
What I would like to see is a concerted effort to bring the true racing fan – the horseplayer – back to the track. To make the experience one that develops life-long racing fans.
Handicapping contests have been a step in the right direction. The live money contests drive handle, bring the right type of customer to the track, and when treated like V.I.P.s, they come back.
Tracks like Churchill Downs and Emerald Downs have grouped fans together to create affordable horse ownership partnerships designed to let them watch their horses race at their home track. It is a great way to create a true fan base and may even create much-needed new owners for the business.
There are other programs underway targeting what I believe is the right long-term fan base, but based on the on-track attendance numbers at places not named Keeneland, Saratoga, Del Mar, Oaklawn Park, and Santa Anita, more needs to be done. Fan experience can create life-long horse racing enthusiasts.
Opening week at Los Alamitos featured four different apprentices – Asa Espinoza, Heriberto Figueroa, Kellie McDaid, and Edgar Payeras – getting to the winner’s circle. Trainer Bob Bean, who has not won a race at Santa Anita or Del Mar since 2014, saddled Funny Bean ($23.40) to win Sunday’s seventh race and gave the Bean barn their first daytime winner since last September at Los Alamitos.
Play of the Week
Los Alamitos, Wednesday, Race 4 – Bellafina (post 1). Jockey Flavien Prat is currently riding in New York, but he flew all the way back to California just to ride this 2-year-old first-time starter for trainer Simon Callaghan. That tells you all you need to know.