Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Racetrack Customers Not a Delaware North Priority
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY--You want a reason to root against the Delaware North corporation getting the VLT franchise at NYRA’s downstate track(s)?
It’s called customer service, or customer consideration, if you prefer. It might also be reflective of the reason why warm bodies don’t support their local racetracks the way they used to.
I’m not sure when it first became a Pricci family tradition, but my wife Toni and I attend the races every Memorial Day. We can’t help it. We’re Metropolitan Handicap weenies; Met Mile geeks. And since there’s live harness racing on holidays, it’s a good reason to support the local track.
Since we live in Saratoga Springs, we attend Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, a.k.a., Spa Harness, a.k.a., the harness track. Even NYRA chief Charlie Hayward wagers here when he’s in town during the off season. It's comfortable here; the employees are courteous and accommodating.
As a loyal weekend warrior, I try to help the handle at both Spa Harness and Capital OTB on alternate weekends. I consider it a community obligation. Here’s some background:
A few years ago, Delaware North bought Saratoga Raceway and turned it into a successful racino; using VLT revenues to make significant upgrades to the facility, erect a nightclub, raise purses and, in general, elevate the product and the experience. The previous owners had operated it like a mom and pop concern.
But it was a place where everyone knew your name, or acted like they did, and the trackside restaurant was open on weekends for cross-breed simulcasting. There were live mutuel clerks to handle your action and self service machines. There were only two caveats:
The clerks would close their windows following the last race from NYRA tracks but SAM machines remained open. Further, you needed to close out your lunch checks and leave around 6 p.m. so that the wait staff could get the restaurant ready for that night. Unless, of course, you were staying for the live racing.
Those were the house rules. None of the regular customers--many were fairly large bettors--had a problem with any of it.
Delaware North came in, shuttered the restaurant for a time, and made upgrades to the point where it became a warm, comfortable and very well appointed dining room.
They did a beautiful job.
When the restaurant reopened, a gourmet concept was tried. The food was very good, albeit not terribly exceptional and pricey. The one thing Saratoga didn’t need was yet another upscale restaurant.
When that approach failed, DN went to buffet concept, a successful staple of the casino/racino business. The food is solid, again not exceptional, and the prices were scaled back although by no means was it a bargain.
Given a racino atmosphere, I thought that bargain prices for good food might bring more people into the building. But VLT business has been booming since Day One and now Delaware North apparently thinks it unnecessary to give something back.
On the racing side, there’s finally a new tote board so that harness fans now can tell the difference between an 8-5 and 3-5 shot. But the backside is still the equivalent of an equine barrio. If major improvements have been made, I haven’t heard that from anyone back there. And you'd think that by now a turf course might have been constructed at Finger Lakes. Pardon the digression.
We arrived when the doors opened Monday at 11:30 a.m. and I thought an omelet might be nice. “Sorry, sir, only a special holiday buffet is available.”
I wondered whether a holiday buffet was really special, or whether it was the regular buffet only served on a national holiday. I got my answer soon enough.
The food was OK, only OK, but overpriced at $18.95 per, coffee and soft drinks extra. Fine, no one was twisting my arm.
The joint was empty, surprising since a special holiday buffet was being served, but not surprising considering the racing program.
A look at the past performances and the horses scoring down showed they weren’t what the game refers to as “Saturday night” horses. But maybe the best horses raced on Saturday and Sunday. The quality of the horses certainly wasn’t up to holiday snuff.
But I shouldn’t complain since I was able to bet at the last minute despite the presence of only one clerk, two self-service machines, and one bet-runner to service the tables. Bet runners are good for straight bets, inefficient for trifecta and superfecta part-wheels.
The dining room no longer is available for thoroughbred simulcasting on non-live racing days. They no longer can justify the expense, which might be fair. That’s probably why Delaware North makes money; pay attention to the bottom line, not what customers may want.
The live card ended but three live NYRA races remained, including the Met Mile. But under this administration, the window closed following the live card, not the NYRA card, an inconvenient truth.
But here’s the point: Even the two self service machines were shut down!
So, a very ordinary buffet for two at a cost $48, plus tip, was paid, and now I was expected to get out. “The simulcast area is still open,” I was told. I never received a satisfactory explanation as to why the SAM machines needed to be shut down, nor an apology for the inconvenience.
Never mind that at that hour most tables in the simulcast area were taken and those that weren’t needed cleaning.
Stupid me, but at least I’ll never make the mistake of getting a table in Fortunes trackside restaurant again. And if you’re in this area, a simulcast fan of either breed, and don’t like being taken for granted, then neither should you.