Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, April 05, 2010

A Reading of the Ratings

(CHICAGO, IL – April 5, 2010) There is a difference between what a person writes and what a person reads. That’s why it comes as no surprise that last week's’s daily unveiling of the five racecourses rated the best for the gambler by the Horseplayers Association of North America was read by many to be a list of the best racecourses - period.

HANA’s Track Ratings are not based on track popularity or qualitative factors such as food service or the grandstand’s cleanliness. A racecourse could get a high HANA Track Rating without even being open to the public for business. Someone stuck on reaching a conclusion by crunching some numbers thought he could come up with something definitive. But given the serendipitous nature of what drives most people to bet on a racehorse, the best that his ratings accomplished was to showcase their sponsor’s name on the Internet.

“The HANA ratings are based on measurable factors with regard to horseplayer value: Takeout rates, field size, wager variety, signal distribution and handle size,” the group’s Web site reports. Like the flight attendant that announces an exhaustive list of gates for connecting flights before recommending that you check the TV monitors when you land because the information may have changed, the site acknowledges that all racecourses aren’t able to control the factors used to determine the ratings so maybe the ratings aren’t valid. Nevertheless, there’s an interesting outcome to the study’s determinations. What could be horse racing’s best racecourse in terms of money-making opportunities could also be the sport’s fan-friendliest playground.

Keeneland, number one in HANA’s horseplayer study, began its 71st spring meet on Friday in the face of the same high unemployment and recessionary economy being used to explain the prevailing bad business of tracks elsewhere with a record crowd of 24,734 people. Benefiting by a bright sky above, sprouting bluegrass below and Fahrenheit in the mid-to-high 70s, the bucolic Lexington, KY racecourse broke an opening day seasonal attendance record that has stood for nearly 40 years. And while a new menu of less costly minimum bets to please horseplayers has been instituted, the track has also provided cell phone users with handicapping sheets, increased the capacity in the parking lots, added valet and shuttle services and more employees to direct traffic – all features that are sure to please on-track patrons.

“According to the NTRA, there are 27 million racing fans; seven million are hard-core,” observed Michael Amo, the Chairman of the Board of the Thoroughbred Racing Fan Association, Inc., an organization that, unlike HANA, is concerned primarily with representing the fan, not the bettor. “What about (the casual fans)? What do they want?” Amo asked rhetorically in a telephone interview. The Thorofan founder, an upstate New Yorker, believes the answer lies mainly in the experience.

“There’s a correlation between the big crowds and the experience. The best tracks for fans value the festival. People just want to be there,” Amo argued. He admitted, “A fan doesn’t want to go to a racetrack and be confronted with a high takeout." Regardless, Keeneland visitor Bill Campbell told Marty McGee of the Daily Racing Form, “It’s the scenery, the atmosphere,” in answer to why he fought the big crowds instead of conveniently betting the horses from home, thus confirming Amo’s initial suspicion.

Amo is traveling to Oaklawn Park, number five on the HANA list, to attend this weekend’s Apple Blossom Handicap and Arkansas Derby. “I’ve got a Best Western room for $90 right across the street from the track. I’ll walk over in the morning to have a cup of coffee and watch the horses work out. In the afternoon, I have a good seat for the Arkansas Derby that cost me $4.50. They really want you to come out to the track,” Amo said. In addition, Amo was eager to learn about McClard’s barbecue, proving that the perfect day at the races doesn’t begin and end at the betting windows.

“It’s interesting to me how many graded stakes a track has. A man wants to see the big-name horses,” Amo also believes. He noted track safety and media relations as key factors that distinguish the country’s extraordinary operations from the ordinary. “Fan-friendly tracks get their information out in the media so that people know which horses are running. I picked up the morning paper and there wasn’t a word about the Wood Memorial,” Amo complained, adding that “NYRA has gone online,” which in his way of thinking might not be introducing the sport to outsiders effectively.

For various reasons, most racecourses aren’t able to conduct festivals in the same sense as Keeneland, Saratoga, Del Mar and Oaklawn – where a party mien accompanies the action. But Jim Miller, assistant general manager of Hawthorne Racecourse, was hitting Chicago media hard to promote the Grade 2 Illinois Derby despite comparatively drab offerings.

“Racing fans often feel disconnected from track management,” Miller contended. “By having open communication lines with our fans, we find that there are changes that can easily be made to provide a better experience,” he said

Hawthorne, number 35 on HANA’s ratings, ran the $50,000 Cryptoclearance Stakes, five claiming events ranging from $4000 to $18,000 runners, a maiden race and two allowance races to complement its Kentucky Derby prep on Saturday – some festival. Yet, anyone who says that the Carey family - custodians of the Cicero, IL facility for 101 years - doesn’t know how to engage fans would be taking a short view of the circumstance. With smokestacks on the backstretch to look at and a competitive environment that compares to New York and LA, Hawthorne resorts to a “kill them with kindness” approach.

“For a lot of our fans, I think there’s a feeling just like walking into a down-to-earth family-run restaurant, not pretentious,” said Tim Carey, the most recent Carey to be at the helm of Hawthorne. But then he added, “A thousand slots would make the Illinois Derby a million-dollar race,” making all that he said about ambience seem disingenuous.

In stark contrast, the Lexington Herald Leader reported that president Nick Nicholson of Keeneland, HANA’s number one track, said, “We can’t compete with a casino, nor should we want to.”

Vic Zast posts daily on Facebook and Twitter. You can learn more about the Thoroughbred Racing Fan Association at

Written by Vic Zast

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