For a good number of years (the post monopoly years) players, fans, some execs and some pundits were always stumped at what they saw was a lack of effort. After 100 years of being the only game in town, where "if you build it, people will come" was the rallying cry to some success, it was something that took awhile to change. Sure, there were gym bag giveaways, maybe mugs or a poster were handed out, but very rarely did a track venture to the deep heart of the problem - attracting more and more people to want to sit and handicap and bet - your product.
Woodbine Entertainment was a poster boy for this system (just read the comments on this blog from horseplayers since 2007) and players were fed up, leaving in droves. They had long had enough.
However now, things appear to be changing, and it is not one-off change, it is becoming (to borrow a phrase) "change we can believe in".
Yesterday was opening day for thoroughbreds at the Rexdale track, and this year there was some positive buzz. For the second year in a row they dropped their tri take, which is still a high 25%, but it is getting there. This move was filtered through the handicapping world and players seemed to see some hope that the track is beginning to want their business again.
There have been other positive player changes the past 12 to 24 months, much of it what players like me and you have been asking, for a long time:
- Expanding their reach via the ADW system, and exporting more to get some of the anemic-handle pools up, and worth playing
- Being tough on some of the 'out of the woodwork' super-trainers
- Using their on-air talent (many of them qualified in handicapping) to give more and more information to punters with editorial freedom
- Concentrating on field size and carding bettable races
- Offering free video and free past performances on their website
- Top-notch simulcast production, with Trackus, allowing simo bettors to follow along easily
- Using Youtube for a replay channel (it is a very good channel), and at the very least trying to use the internet advantageously
- Doing some advertising to people who actually bet
Opening Day in 2008 barely broke $2 million in handle. This year they did almost $3 million.
Handle was up about 7% in 2009, and 9% in 2010. Things are moving in the right direction and this year they may be up double digits for 2011.
Not to be outdone, the harness side had something happen that rarely does: Some positive buzz.
Woodbine Harness (with the Meadowlands faltering) is the premier harness product in the World. But the handles do not reflect that. This past little while, some new things have been tried. Saturday, Woodbine pumped the $100k guarantee in their pick 4, for the first time ever (even advertising on the HRF ad network to fans they don't normally reach).
Would they hit it? Would this be a horrible error? After all, $100k in a Woodbine pick 4 is something never seen, certainly in a wintery April.
The pick 4 attracted $116,000.
On WEG's signature harness day - the $1.5M North America Cup - where over $3M in purses are given away, 20,000 fans cram the tarmac at Mohawk after being bombarded with media, and the race is shown on national television, the handle barely breaks $3 million. Saturday, with the guarantee, some advertising to punters, and some positive buzz, the handle was $1.8 million. We don't see that number any more for Saturday harness; but we do now.
Several years ago here on the silly blog we were all chatting about Woodbine. They just raised their takeout on pick 4's 15% to 25% (or thereabouts, and you were pissed), all the talk was about offshore wagering from the brass there, and players felt like they were speaking to people who never made a bet in their entire lives. As handle was circling the drain, both insiders and punters lamented "why don't they try something positive for customers - anything!" Slowly but surely something happened - they listened and responded.
If Woodbine continues on this course, with new bettor centric ideas (like a 15% take pick 5, for example), continued lower takeout, better distribution and rebates, and confronting the elephant in the room of the too-low pick 4 minimum, they could be a major force on the Continent with serious horseplayers. With places like California suffering where dedicated bettors are abandoning the product, the door is open. Let's hope WEG continues to walk through it.
What kind of horse is St Elmo Hero? A good one. That was a marvelous effort last evening for a colt with foot problems and time off. A hard move to the front, a retake around the turn after being attacked by Mark Mac off a quick third panel would normally portend a loss. Not this time, because good horses don't use excuses.
Speed and trainers rule the roost at Woodbine thoroughbreds in April. Wesley Ward (who was 7 for 20 here last season) has good stock and sends them ready. He won 5 races. Yesterday, for value players he was shut-out, keying a nice hittable $5,000 pick 4, proving you can't be hot all the time and as bettors, we must take stands against the on-paper obvious to win at this tough game.
Layover time in the Spring Championship last evening at the Bine. Hypnotic Blue Chip is a top pacer, and despite being so far back, he fired home beautifully to win. If St. Elmo was on the front end, it was a different story, but Lisagain is no St. Elmo right now. Regardless, Hypnotic is a horse to watch this season in all the major (non-half mile track) stakes.
Florida Derby. I am reading on chat boards and via twitter how Dialed In's win was not impressive. I completely disagree. This was an impressive prep, and if he moves forward, Uncle Mo and Premier Pegasus better keep a keen eye on his saddle pad.
USTA Strategic wager is a success in opening weekend. Balmoral's guarantee was blown out of the water. The Chicago oval continues to impress since changing the takeout on the pick 4 from 25% to 15%. Handle is up over 80% and overall handle has been trending upwards as well.
Kentucky Confidential continues to gain steam, with $2400 pledged. Keep it going.