A crowd of 42,700 watches a race on Black-Eyed Susan day at Pimlico. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
It’s hardly a surprise the racing industry is awash with smiles these days.
A Triple Crown bid heading into the Belmont Stakes tends to bring out the kind of euphoria usually reserved for a young child on Christmas morning.
Yet there’s been much more than a single horse creating such mirth in all corners of the business.
Powered in part by some charismatic superstars such as Triple Crown hopeful American Pharoah and Jim Rome’s Shared Belief, racing has enjoyed a string of box-office bonanzas on its major days this year and become a fashionable place to spend a holiday or weekend afternoon.
The Kentucky Derby attracted a record crowd of 170,513, topping the 2012 record of 165,307. All-sources wagering on the Derby day card rose by four percent over the previous mark to a record $194.3 million. Wagering on the run for the roses itself set a record, rising by seven percent over last year and four percent over the previous mark.
At Pimlico, it was the same happy tune with a record Preakness crowd of 131,680, eclipsing the previous standard of 123,469 set a year ago. Total handle inched forward to $85.1 million from $83.7 million.
The string of records will not include the Belmont Stakes, as a decision to cap attendance at 90,000 was made to make the day more manageable and comfortable for those fortunate enough to secure tickets.
Yet it’s not just the Triple Crown that is resonating with fans from all walks of life. Though the Triple Crown days surely enjoy the glare of racing’s brightest spotlight, there have been other major race days in recent weeks that have attracted crowds reminiscent of the “good old days.”
The Santa Anita Derby had a crowd of 38,647, up from 35,241 in 2014, and a three percent rise in total handle to $21.5 million.
The Arkansas Derby, which featured American Pharoah, was witnessed by a crowd of 67,500 that helped spark overall meet increases of four percent in attendance and three percent in handle.
FANS ENJOY OAKLAWN ON ARKANSAS DERBY DAY
Black-Eyed Susan Day brought out 42,700 fans to Pimlico on Preakness Eve – an increase of 23 percent over 2014 and the highest total in 10 years - and generated a total handle that jumped an astronomical 63 percent to $18.4 million from $11.3 million a year earlier.
On Memorial Day weekend at Monmouth Park, the Jersey Shore track set a record with attendance of 60,114 for Friday through Monday, eclipsing last year’s figure for the same period by 37.4 percent. Total handle was up 22.4 percent and on-track handle rose by 15.5 percent.
Looking forward, good luck trying to find a seat for the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland.
Put it all together and it paints the kind of rosy picture that is normally not associated with racing.
After all, go back five years in time and you’ll find stories saying racing will be dead in five years, though it’s unlikely anyone who uttered those words will be saying “my bad” anytime soon.
Racing is hardly a bona fide rival for the National Football League on a week-to-week basis in terms of media attention and television ratings. But the sport has emerged as a more popular destination on its prime days, which makes all the sense in the world. It can generate spontaneous excitement nine or 10 or more times a day for those wearing their “Sunday clothes” in the clubhouse as well as those in blue jeans and t-shirts in the grandstand.
And the times are indeed ripe for people to discover or become reacquainted with racing.
People can say whatever they want about the virtues of gambling, but when you look at the huge popularity of fantasy sports, casinos and lotteries, a large segment of the population has no problem with putting up some money in hopes of turning it into something bigger. Racing is a perfect vehicle for these people as it involves events that last no more than a couple of minutes and is a heckuva lot more fun to watch than the spinning wheels of a slot machine.
FANS HANDICAP A RACE AT THE TRACK
It can also provide a colorful setting or group activity during a highly self-indulgent time.
Let’s face it. If you want a selfie, where’s a better spot to take it? The local Walmart or when you’re dressed to the nines at a racetrack amidst the buzz generate by thousands of other like-minded individuals? The answer is pretty obvious.
Racing has its problems, but so does every sport – as Major League Baseball and National Football League fans will attest - and these recent numbers show that racing has a solid fan base and there’s no need to lower the lifeboats into the water. Rather than react with panic, problems need to be addressed with urgency and common sense, searching for the common good of an entire industry not one individual player in it.
Racing needs to learn to make its own judgments and not become paralyzed by someone’s claim of about a “perception” - for that’s all perception is, one person’s opinion. Nor can snarky Twitter comments steer policy because, much like perceptions, the remark reflects only a microscopic slice of public opinion.
Of course, that doesn’t mean racing can operate with blinkers on. Issues like medications and safety for the equine and human athletes need decisive actions - not never-ending debate - taken by intelligent people who understand the big picture as opposed to self-centered needs.
Racing also needs to build off the popularity of these big days and strive to make tracks a more viable destination on an ordinary weekday. That’s surely a herculean task, especially in this era of online and off-track wagering, but it cannot be ignored simply because it will not generate the glittering numbers of a big day.
Weekdays are all about grassroots, for both fans and racing, and they are as vital to the sport’s health and well-being as any Triple Crown race, illustrating why the sport needs to be supremely fan-friendly on a daily basis and must strive to make a day at the races more enticing than other entertainment options.
For example, on a recent visit to Belmont Park, 20-ounce bottles of sodas and water sold for $5 – the same price a fan in the area would expect to pay at Yankee Stadium for a beverage that can be bought from a supermarket cooler for about $1.75.
Horse racing, though, is not the New York Yankees and has nowhere near the magnetism of the 27-time World Series champions, who can get away with charging an arm and a leg for food, beverage and tickets and still have tens of thousands of people at every game. Having an army of children badgering mom and dad to go to a Yankees game is a luxury racing does not have.
Fans might expect and accept inflated prices on Belmont Stakes day, that comes with the territory these days in all sports. But on any other day, racing needs to offer much better value than the Yankees or Mets or Giants or Jets. Give fans more ways to save money and additional reasons to enjoy an afternoon at the races, rather than having them grumble about how money-hungry sports venues have become, and in the long run it will pay a dividend.
FANS HANG OUT NEAR THE TRACK AT MONMOUTH PARK
Looking at empty concession stands, it also makes great business sense. Let’s say that soda retails at $1. Why make $8 in half-hour when only two people cough up the hefty $5 price, when you can make $20 by selling 10 drinks at a sale-inducing price of $3.
Racing can also look at the success of having food trucks on its grounds and put to better use one of its best asset: space.
If there’s one thing any racetrack has it is free space, and this should be used to bring in businesses that will enhance the experience for both horseplayers and someone who is merely tagging along for the afternoon.
Gulfstream Park is a good example of how well that can work.
For most tracks the key would be to avoid bringing in establishments that will be empty because they believe they can overprice their items because of the surroundings. Tracks should find businesses that are good fits for their clientele and then, to generate more business traffic, provide breaks in the cost of rent or leases in exchange for those companies selling their goods at prices equal to or perhaps even lower than stores down the block from the track.
If that sounds utopian, then take a trip to Windsor Locks, Connecticut, where across the street from Bradley Airport there’s a Connecticut Off-Track Betting teletheater with one of Bobby Valentine’s sports bars housed in it.
Downstate, Valentine, the former major league manager, has operated one of Stamford’s most popular bar/restaurants for more than 30 years and the Windsor Locks establishment could pass for the Stamford bar in terms of menu and prices – and the large crowds inside it.
While much of the daily crowd comes to watch a baseball or football game, the restaurant is awash with monitors for racing from across the country and has introduced as well as re-introduced a growing number of fans to racing. The more people who are primarily interested in a buffalo chicken wrap and a beer decide to take a fling and head over to a wagering terminal, the more Winners’ (COTB’s brand name) handle and fan base will grow.
The jump in business may not be prolific, yet for a sport that has been hounded with so many dire forecasts, these seeds will ultimately grow. They just need time.
And looking at what’s been happening this year, racing does indeed have time.
No matter what the haters say.