Monday, July 06, 2009

Handle is Declining and I’m the Cause

A few weeks ago I received a friendly email from local turf writer, Gary West. He remarked that he had not seen me out at the track lately.

That’s because I’m not out at the track that much anymore.

In years past, there was always time to go to venture out to Lone Star Park a couple of days a week – swing by on Thursday night after work, or devote my Saturday to the entire card with a smattering of intriguing races on simulcast. I had my favorite pari-mutuel clerks, favorite seating areas, favorite refreshments. I had a variety of acquaintances amongst the loyal horseplayers that created a wonderful sense of camaraderie.

But things change.

Lone Star Park raised the price of admission. The cost of a racing program increased. Food and beverage prices increased. Just to "swing by the track for a couple of races" was costing me more money before I placed my first wager. My favorite pari-mutuel clerk retired. Even the casual friendliness that I had enjoyed had soured as I had the misfortune of receiving some unwanted / unpleasant remarks from annoying buffoons that I would’ve punched had I been a guy. Well, that’s moot because I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have been the recipient of such talk if I had been a guy.

And life changed at home. The girls had more activities. I picked up weekend shifts at the lab. My husband embarked on a landscaping project that required my assistance. It soon became more desirable to spend my Saturdays putting in a garden walkway and tearing out juniper bushes than going to the racetrack.

Lone Star Park is turning into a lazy boyfriend. And judging by declining attendance and handle, I’m not the only one who’s getting turned off.

Here’s a tidbit of information: On July 3 – 4, Lone Star Park’s Stars and Stripes Fireworks Celebration had attendance figures of 15,000 to 20,000 people but could barely muster an on-track handle of $400,000. What does that tell us? That there were lots of families and kids, and they generally don’t bet. Similar numbers pop-up for concerts that appeal to the younger generation; an affordable concert venue but most of the crowd doesn’t contribute to on-track handle because (1) they’re too young, and (2) they’re not horseplayers.

It’s business as usual. It seems there’s little effort on the track’s behalf to disseminate racing information or impending events. Nothing new. Nothing innovative. Nothing that entices new horseplayers nor retains existing ones. Isn’t there anybody coming up with new ideas? Churchill Downs is figuring it out. Their creative "Downs After Dark" was a raging success, and it attracted the type of clientele that contributes to handle. Churchill Downs is incredibly proactive spreading press releases and "barn talk" and photos and racing notes. I go out to the Lone Star Park website to look for track news and it’s paltry – there’s a few measly photos from the 2008 Hat Contest on Derby Day. Yippee.

Perhaps there is a feeling of malaise amongst track management, being of the fact that they’re Magna and the racetrack license and operation is on the auction block. If there is apathy, sadly there’s a trickle-down effect.

It doesn’t help either that horsemen, frustrated with sagging purses in Texas, keep threatening to pack up their stables and race their horses in exotic slot-supplemented locales, like Louisiana Downs or Zia Park. I’m not a fan of slot machines and I don’t know any fellow horseplayer who’s thrilled about the notion of adding slots at the racetrack but if it makes the horsemen happy, I guess I’ll have to support it. But I continue to wish and hope for a better alternative.

Yesterday, the Professor posted,

Racetracks are faced with the unique challenge of entertaining people over a period of four hours while most of them are losing their money. Tracks can accomplish that only if they provide a comfortable setting and only by creating an unusual and exciting experience and, of course, by offering bargains.

Dollar Day at Lone Star Park is July 11th. The previous Dollar Day on April 25th had an attendance of 16,389 and an on-track handle of $710,590. What does that tell us? Well, a dollar admission, dollar program, dollar beer ... I can afford to go and take my friends and family. And I can afford to bet.


Steve Zorn said...

Free admission is even better than a dollar. There's an interesting piece in this week's new Yorker magazine on how "free" is a whole different universe from 1 cent or 1 dollar. Casinos let the patrons in for free, and you can get drinks from the cocktail waitresses for a $1 tip. That's making the customers feel well taken care of while they're losing money. No reason race tracks couldn't do the same. It would more than pay its way in increased handle.

SaratogaSpa said...

Treat the customer well. It is as simple as that...and free admission is a start

suebroux said...

Free is good - I scrounge up free admissions whenever available, i.e., Sundays with my Star-Telegram Press Pass, coupons from the track.

However, I'm not opposed to paying a couple of dollars for admission during live racing for amenities. I'm always grateful for clean restrooms. And someone needs to pay the folks that are constantly sweeping losing tickets off the grandstand floor.

But $5 admission is pretty steep. Worse, for my daughters (both under 12), it's $4 each - and they can't even bet!

Cangamble said...

Steve, we have free admission in Ontario. It doesn't help....probably doesn't hurt, but it doesn't help.

Unknown said...

There are far more serious reasons for declining attendance and handle than a few extra dollars for admission, food or the inability to say hello to a track employee. Could it be a cheering crowd watching exhausted horses beaten by a whip while they struggle to even finish a race has lost its "entertainment" for a vast majority of former racing fans who now see the dark side of racing?
Why not visit the blog at the Paulick Report

that discusses some REAL reasons for declining wagers. Pay particular attention to posts 3. 5. 7. 11. 12. 16. 19 and 21. You'll even see Lone Star listed there and thank you for not being in attendance to cheer these horses onto their deaths.

The industry needs to face reality. Their former fanbase now lives in the 21st century even if they do not. Gambling at full casinos with disposable dice and disposable cards is much more appealing than the racing of disposable racehorses and an industry that is neutral on the slaughter of its own horses.

Jessie Bartholomew said...

Lone Star Park is the worst managed horse racing track in the U.S.

The only experience the head of marketing had in sports before Lone Star Park was selling bowling balls. And he wasn't very good at that.

Magna, in its infinite wisdom, got rid of horse racing people and brought in a General Manager who had no experience running a track with any meaningful live attendance. His first brilliant ideas was to increase prices across the board.

The concerts lose money as the track pays more to the act than they bring in in beer sales and wagering.

The sad thing is Lone Star Park will probably be closed in five years if not sooner. With good management, it could have survived.

Anonymous said...

Please jo anne, we know what your agenda is. It is not about improving horse racing, but about ending it.

suebroux said...

Jessie: I'm not quite ready to bestow the Management Lumpen Award to the folks of Lone Star. There are are other racetrack operators a whole lot more deserving of that such as Capitol Racing that managed to shutter Le Bois Park, and perhaps that Brunetti character who owns Hialeah.

Hopefully, your bleak 5-year-outlook is wrong.

Thanks for stopping by.

Unknown said...

Responding to "Anonymous" -- everyone posting here has what you refer to as an "agenda". Why would that preclude someone from responding to the subject matter "Handle is Declining"? Sorry, Anonymous, but it is what it is. Are you saying those horses did not die from racing at Lone Star during that short period of time? That the public enjoys watching their racing athletes die in the dirt and approves that they go to slaughter when done racing?

Perhaps you should read or listen to the testimony of industry witnesses at the Congressional hearing of June 19, 2008 entitled "Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Horseracing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Horse" and question their "agendas" as they report about the serious problems within the industry. (No one mentioned attendance fees)

And by the way, none of those testifying nor anyone else on this blog hid their identity. Why are you hiding yours?

Anonymous said...

You nailed it. Like many racetracks, for whatever reason, Lone Star has become -- love your metaphor -- the lazy boyfriend.

suebroux said...

jo anne: I have a thought or two to share about the subject as well ...