Thursday, January 03, 2013

Fan Council Recommendations Mostly Get It Right, Part 1

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, JANUARY 3, 2012—If anything is clear from yesterday's recommendations of the New York Racing Fan Advisory Council to the State Racing & Wagering Board it’s that they heard what horse racing fans and some segments of the media have been saying for some time now.

The hope is that these recommendations will not come too little or too late. Much of the advice is reasoned and well-meaning; a means for correcting the problems that the game faces not only in New York but a template for Anytrack USA.

What was not addressed is whether or not the model itself is broken, out of step with the modern culture or whether the Council should have concentrated more on macro or micro recommendations, depending on one’s philosophy.

It appears the Council has done a little of both, which at once can be the good news and the bad news. A look, then, at many of weightier recommendations affecting the greatest number of people and the racing industry itself, presented in two parts:

Takeout Rates: The language here was surprisingly explicit, the Council stating that while non-NYRA tracks use VLT revenue to fund 71 percent of its purses, “there have been few serious attempts made to help out the bettors… It is time for [all] New York racetracks to reduce takeout on their customers.”

Reducing takeout is a win-win-win, of course, benefitting horse racing’s customers, the state’s coffers and the tracks themselves by making their product more attractive to the simulcast market that accounts for almost nine of every 10 dollars wagered.

It is hoped there will be none of those famed legislative half-measures necessitating the constant revisiting of the same issue. Recently, the SRWB extended the provision allowing for continued video streaming for another year.

I'm wondering if New York’s regulators could be more sophomoric? Is the wagering landscape about to change dramatically in 2014? The only good that comes from these short-term fixes is that the SRWB gets to hold on to a bargaining chip for future negotiations.

Track Partnership: “The Racing and Wagering Board should foster and facilitate a collaborative partnership among New York tracks, similar to how it coordinated an agreement on video streaming.

“The conglomerate of NY tracks would include NYRA tracks, Finger Lakes, and all Harness tracks in New York State. This would enable the parties to work together to market simulcasting measures and permit tracks greater bargaining power for simulcast races and help make sure New York races are carried elsewhere thus helping New York track handle.”

Long overdue, this makes so much sense the only questions that remain are why it took three decades to figure out that it’s about cooperation, not competition, and that there is bargaining strength in numbers. Perhaps, it was the industry’s poor cooperation past performances that snuffed out the notion that common sense solutions could work.

Enhancing Belmont Stakes Day Fan Experience: “Belmont Stakes Day typically features the highest attendance day of any track during the year and has had some of the largest crowds to ever attend a sporting event in New York State. Belmont Stakes Day is, for many fans, their only visit to a race track during the year.

"Belmont Stakes Day is an excellent opportunity to highlight and showcase every positive aspect of horse racing to entice fans to come back to the track on other race days.

“The experience should be improved by lowering the prices of food, beverages and souvenirs, as opposed to raising prices for such items. NYRA should also consider allowing fans to bring food and beverages to the track on Belmont Stakes Day.

“If safety reasons prevent this, prices at the track for these items should be reasonable to ensure fans have a positive experience. Finally, NYRA should consider a promotion to draw those fans in attendance on Belmont Stakes Day to return to the races on another day.”

What’s next, pinning smiley-face my-name-is buttons on the uniforms of mutuel clerks? (Sorry, just couldn’t resist… although it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, mind you).

Actually, what New York racing has come to is this: That a historic sports event capable of attracting a six-figure crowd is to be regarded as a marketing opportunity. Somewhat sadly, however, this is exactly right.

It can be argued, too, that some of the VLT money—if some statute needs adjusting then do it—can be used to lower prices every day, making a day at the races affordable, top tier entertainment in a well-manicured facility. Old can be charming [see Saratoga].

Further, casinos are known for serving good food at reasonable prices. There is no reason the New NYRA can’t do the same thing with some of the VLT largesse it receives. And given its huge expanse, picnicking for families should be encouraged by severely reducing--or even eliminating--admissions, for adults who bring their children.

Finish Line Placement at Yonkers: “The Racing & Wagering Board should review the placement of the finish line at Yonkers… to see if a change in the finish line location is feasible. Moving the finish further up the stretch would benefit fans by allowing them to more accurately see the finish… and permit the starting gate to release the field earlier so horses can jockey for position more before heading into the first turn… ideally reducing the impact of post position.”

Since I cut my teeth on harness racing and witnessed the great Speedy Scot break, make up an eighth of a mile, and still win the Yonkers Trot in under two minutes, a standard for half-mile track greatness back in the day, I feel qualified to speak on this.

While the idea of releasing horses sooner at the start before reaching the first turn to mitigate the effect of outside post position has merit, moving the finish line further up the stretch is a terrible idea.

As it is, if your horse is not at least a close-up third entering the Yonkers stretch, it has no chance. Lengthening the stretch gives more horses a chance to win and just might help slow down the dominance of short-priced winners.

WiFi: “Track operators should make WiFi available throughout the racing facilities so that fans can use tablets and other technology to download racing programs and access racing information.”

I have often made this suggestion often at my local track. If the venue is concerned that bettors will use Internet service to access other ADW companies, simply put a block on those competing sites. As it is, bettors can use cell phones to wager with competitors.

Saturday: Part ll of New York Fan Council Recommendations to the SRWB

Written by John Pricci

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