“Woodbine 2010” Redux. How Did They (we) Do?

About three and a half years ago I wrote an article called “Woodbine 2010”. In it, I listed ten things that I hoped Woodbine/Mohawk would implement by the year 2010 to help get racing back on track. In 2007 things were not (on the surface) horrible yet, but all the signs were there and bettors were warning about the trends.

Here are the ten points from the 2007 article verbatim, and a 2011 summary with any changes. I was wondering how they (and me) did, so here goes:

2007 Point 1: The Pick 7 - would be scrapped. I would immediately lower pick 4 takeout back to 2003 levels, which was 14.75%. Why they raised prices in a falling handle landscape in the first place is beyond me. We right this wrong. Lower takeout would then be advertised. "We have the lowest win 4 rake in North America" is our tagline. If this grows, I would seed this pool on Saturday nights to a big number and hope to get new money into the pool.

What has happened since 2007: The pick 7 was scrapped and they “kinda” did some work on the pick 4. Now each day of the week the pick 4 is advertised and is guaranteed. The pick 4 is one success story they have going for them. They have not yet changed the takeout, but I highly suspect this is coming. 15% is the industry norm in harness now and the market expects that number. Woodbine can’t be the leader on this like they could have been several years ago, but they can get a brand push by joining the many other tracks who have dropped pick 4 takeouts.

Grade: B

2007 Point 2
: With WEG currently at 4 nights a week for harness, there is absolutely no excuse to card races with fields less than 9 - with some work. Entries have been in the 160 range, for 110 spots the past while. The horse population is there. After a few weeks of tweaking the condition sheet, we should be able to see full fields in most races.

What has happened:
This has been a slam dunk, frankly. Bruce Murray addressed race dates and began to get fuller fields, and the ORC stepped up to the plate in late 2010 to ensure the premier track gets premier entries. Short fields rarely happen anymore.

Grade: A

2007 Point 3: The high end of the condition sheet (FFA’s) will now be full fields with FFA/JrFFA Handicaps. The purse for this event will be upped to $60,000 from $45,000. It will be a feature race every week.

What has happened: Not much, as we still have five horse FFA’s. However I can’t be too hard on them because the population is what it is. It’s hard to promote horses, when the horses are nowhere to be found. This was not much of an idea anyway.

Grade: n/a

2007 Point 4: We own a night. Trots are raced on Thursdays, perhaps with some sort of bet promo. Young horses are raced, say Fridays. We own Saturdays: The best fields are assembled, the pick 4 is seeded, HPI rewards points are doubled, purses are upped to attract the best horses we can (while diverting purses from other nights), 13 or 14 high quality races are carded, the pre-game show with Mike and the boys is promoted and they work on camera most if not all night - no dead air.

What has happened: A little bit has happened along the above lines. Just last month Woodbine and COSA (the horsemen organization) began the $100k guarantee for Saturday’s. They have had fair success hitting that number. Time will tell if they can build Saturday night as a branded harness night. In retrospect, I think the idea about the other days of the week is a better one. Saturday is so crowded, especially with the Meadowlands back. HPI has started offering out rewards points bonuses at times, following private ADWs who have done this for some time.

Grade: B+

2007 Point 5: Claiming races are written, and written and written - every week until they fill

What has happened: There are more claiming races being written as of late. Using ten claimers for some of the super races has surely helped.

Grade: A-

2007 Point 6: Rewards programs are increased immediately. I read a "Harness Tracks of America" conference transcript several years ago where WEG's exec said "we won't pay people to play" with regards to rewards. How is that working out? Well we pay people to play in WEG 2010 - every gambling business does it, and has for literally centuries.

What has happened: In the last couple of years, even old stalwarts like Twinspires have really embraced this concept, with their zero % takeout pick 4’s and pick 5’s as promotions. Woodbine – having an ADW monopoly – has only dipped their toes in the water on this. I fully expect them to follow suit, because when you give back money it is not stuck in a sock, it is churned.

Grade: C-

2007 Point 7: Day of the week promotions, whether that be a seeded superfecta pool, a cincofecta, a low takeout pick 3 night - whatever, are established and promoted.

What has happened: There is some movement on this with guarantee’s, and Monday has been rebranded on the Score. Takeout changes are still resisted for the most part as a promotional/handle driving tool in the offices in Rexdale.

Grade: D

2007 Point 8: The signal should be available to anyone who wants it. Mountaineer Racetrack went from a backwoods place who races 5 claimers at night, to a high handle track within a few years. Their philosophy was to sell their signal to resellers and let them do what they want with it. There is a new sheriff at WEG in 2010, and he exports the signal.

What has happened: The signal is no longer treated like a high price commodity in a protective shield, worried about an offshore boogeyman - brand humility has entered the corporate offices. Rebaters have more and more access, and handle has followed this access. Horseplayers can’t bet what they can’t see, and now many can at least see it.

Grade: B+

2007 Point 9: In the corporate offices a new employee incentive program is announced. It is based on handle. If handle goes up, your bonus goes up. This program is established for everyone - right down to a program seller.

What has happened: I am not privy to the inside workings of WEG, but when I see some Woodbine employees taking pride in recent handle gains, it bodes well.

Grade: n/a

2007 Point 10: Judges rulings are explained on air, by the judges. The racing product itself is scrutinized. Uniform calls are made, as we illustrated here below. In addition, there will be no hock kicks, and no illegal whipping - these are fined heavily - $500 for a first offense, and up $1000 for each offense after that. These guys are making $200K a year, $100 fines don't cut it. That will stop this stuff in about a week, once and for all. A jockey in Hong Kong just got two months for not riding a horse hard enough for second place, which will probably cost him $50K, so please, no one tell me this is too penal.

What has happened: It is tough to grade this with respect to Woodbine, because the judges are ORC employees. However, whipping rules are now zero tolerance and hock shots have gone down appreciably as the drivers start to fall in line. In addition, rulings are handled much better today than three years ago when this was written. The WEG youtube page and free program pages are also a step in the right direction along these lines.

Grade: B+

Woodbine has changed quite a bit the last four years, and they should be commended for what they’ve done right. Handles have been trending in the right direction, and the brand is not as tarnished as it once was.

Let’s hope they do not rest and continue to attack the market in an aggressive fashion. If so, in three years hence, perhaps handles can be much higher than they are today.

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