Wintertime Tracks Like the Big A Should Be Different

Bill Finley wrote what I thought was a pretty common sense piece at ESPN yesterday.
  • Somehow, though, that simplest of philosophies [decent races, ok takeouts, larger fields] has been forgotten at so many racetracks. Small fields, unplayable races, too many racing dates and high takeouts have become the norm.
He was speaking about the sweeping changes at the Meadowlands, where races are carded not for horse owners, or to give a trainer a layup or two, but for customers. Handle is up about 33% compared to last season.

Example, when there weren't enough entries to a stakes series:
  •  The racing secretary's office also deserves an A-plus. It has consistently filled the races with 10 or more horses. When it looks as if a race is going to fall short of a full field, in many cases it isn't held. With 11 nominees to the Overbid Series of stakes races, the racing office took no chances on winding up with a six-horse field. The race was scrapped. 
A lot of tracks can learn from the Meadowlands, in my opinion. The obvious example is California tracks, where since it seems about 2000, fields have been short, and there has been no effort to fix them. That brand, despite still being a destination for simulcasters everywhere, has certainly suffered.

One track I believe who may learn something from the Meadowlands is Aqueduct.

The Big A is a wintertime destination for many punters, and the New York racing brand is the tops in the nation. They do a very good job promoting their races and they have done a great job branding them as well with their simulcast show and paddock reports. It's a winter place to be.

One would suspect they could race $5,000 claimers on a Thursday with 5 horse fields in each, and still draw $7 million in handle. It's a powerful brand. 

But it doesn't mean you have to rest on it.

This winter the Big A has had to cut a day of racing a week, and can't seem to find itself. The third and eighth races, reserved for state bred stakes, or allowance races, are terribly boring, with fields that are very short. The rest of the cards have not exactly been barnburners either.

I'd say about a dozen times this year I have looked to take a pick 4, but saw "chalk-chalk-second chalk- chalk" type sequences. I kept my money in my wallet. Chalk this meet has won at 38.2%. Morning line favorites are clicking through at 35.8%, returning 79 cents on the dollar. There's not a lot of fruit on the tree.

Rather than blowing up the condition sheet like the Meadowlands has, maybe something could be done, like a 50 cent 15% rake pick 5, just for this meet. The payoffs will be larger, and it could help, even if it does only a little bit. A stale pick 4 in short fields can be made a playable sequence by adding one more race. And for 50 cents, it's hittability is not off the reservation. If it works, it could be a staple of the winter branding of New York racing.

Changing a successful track by adding or deleting bets is nothing new. Gulfstream went through massive changes the last several years. They tried to be an eastern pick 6 destination, but that was scrapped for the Rainbow Six. Their pick 4 pools were huge, but that didn't stop them from carding a pick 5. Gulfstream's handle is up since 2009, while horse racing's handle has fallen.

The Meadowlands, of course, was the NYRA of harness racing. They rested on their laurels for a long, long time, but after dripping handle each meet, with shorter fields it finally took its toll. They were forced to change their brand. They made changes too late, and like Finley's column alludes, these changes have worked. If they made them five years ago they probably would not have had to make them.

The way I look at it, is that even when handle is good the question "how can we make it better" should always be asked. I think this question should be asked at the Big A. Sure our handle is the bomb, but how can we be even better?

Jack Welch, the former GE CEO, once said that he does not want managers or executives who fear change. He wants managers and executives that fear what will happen if you don't change. Wintertime tracks need to stand out, and they have to change with the times.The status-quo doesn't last forever. Just ask the Meadowlands.

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