With a restaurant or a retail place of business we tend to see sales or other customer-focused techniques work rather well. In racing it is much different. Being a skill gambling game we are funded by skill-game players. They rarely react to an on-track giveaway, a band or some sort of one-day sale. We as horseplayers tend to simply show up to the races like it's our office.
However, one thing it appears we do respond to is branding.
At this moment some tracks have good vibes, like Tampa Bay Downs, Keeneland and several others. More often than not if you ask a patron about those tracks the brand comes up; Keeneland might be "fun" or Tampa might be "good value on pick 4's" etc. On the flip-side, visit a chat board; you can find the bad branded tracks in a flash.
The problem is it's really quite difficult to shake some bad branding. It takes time.
The recently concluded HANA Harness racing survey shows the branding angle, almost to a "t".
Several years ago (you'd know this if you were a player, or followed many blog posts and comments here) the Meadowlands allowed a trainer back who had been caught with EPO. Around the same time Ledford who was expelled, was kind-of-not-really expelled, and was allowed to compete if he wished. This angered players a great deal. The Meadowlands I am certain wanted to get rid of these types, but because they were a public institution, they could not kick them out forever. If you go to any simo-center today, or read on chat boards, the Meadowlands is known by some as the place where every shady trainer can go, without having a problem. Many times you will get an email or read a topic where existing trainers at Woodbine or other tracks make the trip to the M and their horses all of a sudden find "life".
This has stuck with them. When the harness players in the HANA survey this month were asked what was the number one problem at the Meadowlands, the majority answered "questionable trainers". This finding is somewhat surprising due to the fact that field size and field quality has been such an issue of late. Those factors scored low, however.
The thing that I think is positive about this branding though is that it can be reversed. Another part of the survey offers evidence of that.
The WEG circuit has had their share of shady trainers, just like the Meadowlands, and the complaints from the early 1990's onwards were there. But WEG have taken a hardline against them in the past eight or ten years. If you are a 25 year old lighting up a horse like a Christmas tree and winning at 40% off the claim, chances are you are going to be given a rough ride at Woodbine.
If it was the year 2005, I would bet dollars to donuts "Questionable trainers" would have come first at Woodbine too in a survey. However, in the HANA survey, it came third.
If Jeff Gural gets the Meadowlands off the ground and tackles that number one branding problem, I would submit that in a few years another survey would take place, and the questionable trainer category would be down the list.
I think that works with most tracks, too. There are a ton of thoroughbred tracks with bad branding problems due to questionable trainers. There are a ton of tracks where people know the takeout is sky high, or the field size is too low and it is what those tracks are known for. It will take them awhile to see the fruits of their labor in trying to attack these issues, but in my opinion there is some fruit on the tree if they have some foresight and patience to give it a shot.