When I started going to the track, and long before that for many others, there seemed to be a mantra for tracks that was followed: Set a post, card some races, open the doors and all will be well. Since about 1990, this was clearly not good enough. With competition, an aging demographic which was not being replaced, and the changing of society, simply putting on the races was a recipe to, drip by drip, hurt the business. That writing has been on the wall for some time, and the response by racing was muted. However, over the past six to ten months, this seems to have changed a little. It appears we are starting to mature as a business, moving from one where experimentation was considered heresy, to one which is starting to realize that without it, we're done.
The Monmouth experiment, spearheaded by a governor and racing management that has demanded the sport stand on its own two feet, or die, looks to be resultant of that maturation. What they have done is the antithesis setting a post time and opening the doors. The hard work was being done long before the doors opened, because success demands it.
Monmouth's journey began about six months ago. They have done the little things right from day one, for the most part, in my opinion:
i) They set the table for a short meet, with pop. Horsemen want to race the most dates for the most amount of money. It is right as rain. This time, less days meant more in terms of a racing product and buzz. The shrinking of the meet, in a completely saturated market, differentiated themselves from the pack. Promoting what they were was flushing money down the toilet. Now they have something to promote.
ii) Promote they did. In every press release, in every email, in every ad - big field size, low takeout, good on-track amenities.
iii) Who was the first track in some time to use the HRF ad network to simply promote their meet to blog readers and chat board watchers? Monmouth.
iv) Their facebook page, survivor contest and use of the net was not a necessary evil, it is something they have tried to use as a conduit to reach bettors.
v) Did they look to raise takeout with the old time thinking of: Since we are sinking all this cash into the meet, maybe we should try and squeeze people a little more. Front and center their low takeout bets are promoted. In their 15% pick 5 carryover Sunday, $801,000 was added to the pool.
What they did was not earth shattering when we compare it to what Intel or Amazon or Wal Mart or McDonald's does on virtually a daily basis; but in racing it was something. They created an event, they promoted the event, and they strive to make each day of the event something special. It is very difficult to get fans to look at you in our sport because with so many customers married to their own circuit, the pool of bettors is small. So far, this risk looks to be working.
And of course, they did it without a slot machine. Some casino money yes, but no slot machines.
Over the past little while we have seen this happen in small ways at other tracks too. Look at Woodbine, who some might argue is the most unwilling to change track around. They spent money to get on TVG and actually used it to promote their pools. They tried a seeded pick 6. For gosh sakes, last week they ran the Open (which is a horrid betting race) the first race on the card, instead of in race 9 or 10 where it is an invitation to call it a night. Even when you mention takeout rates there is a realization they are too high now, as Nick Eaves noted in last weeks Trot podcast. These are small things yes, and things that bettors such as yourselves have been asking about for years, but they are a step in the right direction, especially considering the direction of most of the last 25 years has been one of a straight line status-quo.
Monmouth's experience, should it pay off, might be a seminal moment for racing. In four or five years, maybe meets like this will occur all over North America. Maybe a fan base can be energized to look at your track if you offer a product at a decent price that is worth playing. Maybe media will follow an event where something is happening, instead of yawning at our events where you can usually fire off a cannon in the grandstand and not hit anyone but a hot dog vendor. Maybe day after day and race after race of short fields at punishing 22% takeouts can be replaced by something worth playing, and watching, and promoting. Maybe the mantra of opening your doors and setting a post time as your core business strategy will be left where it belongs - in the last century.
About ten years ago a marketer we follow here on the blog (Seth Godin) stood in front of a crowd of newspaper execs and told them that if they do not change, many of them will not be around in ten years. It is not that different in racing. Fans, bettors, industry watchers have been begging racing to do something to make it an event. Begging to not add more dates with terrible horses that beget terrible betting races, begging not to let slot money slip away by doing what they have always done. Maybe this day has come in at least one small way. For the future of our sport, let's hope it works, and that others follow.