Try this: The New York Times home-delivery department sent my wife Pat an offer in the mail, 26 weeks of the paper at half-price. Since I have already been getting the Times for years, at full price, this piqued my interest. I called the 800 number and bought Pat a subscription at the cut rate. I told her that this was an early Valentine's Day gift, but that's another story.
The woman at the other end of the line wanted to know the reason for my cancellation.
"Price," I said, telling the truth and lying at the same time. I did have a problem with the price, but I was also going to finagle into qualifying for my wife's half-price subscription.
"Can I put you on hold for a minute?" she said.
She came back and said that she was prepared to give me a year's subscription at half-price.
"Sign me up," I said, and then it was time to confess my chicanery. She didn't say anything about pressing charges, and said she would try to cancel Pat's subscription.
Then she said: "You've done all this so quickly that your wife's subscription hasn't hit my screen yet. But I'll cancel it as soon as it does." So my beautiful falsetto on the second call was a waste of deception.
After bringing the New York Times to its knees, I said to Pat: "Why, at the start, were they so nice to you, a perfect stranger, while they treated me, a loyal customer for many years, like I would be around forever, no matter what the price? Why did I have to back into a half-price deal? I've never negotiated a newspaper subscription price in my life, but I guess now anything is possible."
Stay with me, there's a racing connection here. What the New York Times was doing reminds me of far too many race tracks, stumbling over themselves to bring in new faces while letting the old faces wrinkle up and fade away. I have a good friend in the Midwest who's been going to his local track for more than 50 years. Let's call him Milt, because if I used his real name, he might lose his table in the dining room.
Milt's total bets, every time he goes racing, are conservatively three times the average daily per capita at this track. Milt bets with both hands, and on occasion I've seen him shovel in a bet or two with his feet. But if the track knows this, they've never given him a pass for free admission. The general manager of the track barely knows him; he says hello to him some of the time, other times acts like he's never seen him. Milt pays to get through the turnstiles every time, but lately he hasn't been going as much as he used to. He's been making more trips to Las Vegas, where he can bet a lot of other things besides horses and where they keep track of his play and throw hotel rooms and meals and drinks at him with endless abandon.
Now I know there are some tracks that have launched loyalty programs, but tracks in toto need to do more, and do a better job of identifying their well-heeled customers. You have to find fresh customers, that's the case in every business, even embalming, but don't let the regulars grovel while you're at it.
Phil Dunn died the other day. Phil was an executive at the New York Racing Association, and he was a guy who got it. At one time, according to Dunn, the handle at Aqueduct was carried by about eight substantial bettors.
"We should be sending limousines for these eight," Dunn said, but they didn't. "If one of them wakes up with a cold, we know why the handle is off."
It might be too late for racing, but it's not too late for the limousines. Even cab fare would be a start.