A fan appreciation day schedule for this weekend at the Fair Grounds couldn't have come at a better time.
The New Orleans racetrack will use the event to apologize to and hopefully appease hundreds of angry bettors accidentally shut out of the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) March 11. Pari-mutuel terminals at the racetrack were dark for 20 minutes before the race because the totalizator hub at Sam Houston Race Park switched to auxiliary power in anticipation of thunderstorms, and the switchover crashed a computer program.
Fair Grounds president Bryan Krantz said the track lost an estimated $920,000 in on-track and off-track handle. Wagering on the race this year was $1,532,000, down from the $2,452,000 bet on the race in 2000. Total wagering for the day dropped 22% to $7,065,000 compared to last year when the total handle was $9,080,000.
"The business loss is a contractual issue and we'll talk through that," Krantz said. "The public relations issue is another story. You have your banner day and a field with several horses aiming for the Kentucky Derby, and people weren't allowed to bet their convictions. It generated a lot of emotion -- angry emotion."
Angry phone calls to Fair Grounds offices and Krantz' home, and the flood of ugly email only began subsiding Wednesday, he said.
"It seems everyone had Fifty Stars cold in their exactas and trifectas," Krantz said. "If the people we heard from had actually bet on him, he would have paid closer to $4 than $43."
Fair Grounds hopes to make peace by expanding its fan appreciation day to fan appreciation weekend. Instead of giving away $10,000 in cash and prizes, the track will give away $20,000. On Saturday, Fair Grounds will hand out checkbook covers at the gate that will contain either one of five $1,000 cash prizes, mutuel vouchers, or discount coupons on food and drinks. On Sunday, the racetrack will offer free grandstand admission and $1 admission to the clubhouse. Concession prices will be lowered for the whole weekend.
The hub crash is not expected to cause similar public relations problems for Autotote, according to Brooks Pierce, president of Autotote Systems.
"I don't think it erodes confidence in our system," he said. "You read every day about computer systems falling over. With the size and complexity of racing as it is today, I'm surprised there are not more failures. I think that is a tribute to the technology."
The Houston hub processes an estimated $2 billion in wagers annually for Fair Grounds, Sam Houston, Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, Great Lakes Downs and Mt. Pleasant in Michigan, and the Mobile Greyhound Park and Valley Race Park dog track. The hub's equipment was upgraded less than a year ago, and some new hardware and software was installed in February.
While the exact reason for the crash is still being investigated, Pierce said the switch to auxiliary power was the trigger.
"We were asked by Sam Houston to switch to auxiliary power because of thunderstorms moving through the area," Pierce said. "Unfortunately, we did."
The power was switched. The system crashed, and the thunderstorms never materialized.
Bob Bork, vice president and general manager of Sam Houston, said he does not believe the hub's crash had anything to do with the switch to an emergency generator.
"We use the generator all the time," Bork said. "There were storm warnings. We fired it up and everything was fine. At some point after that, their system got overloaded and shut down."
Sam Houston lost an estimated $100,000 in on-track and off-track wagers.
The hub has three computers systems backed up by two networks, but none of the backup systems work in real time. So when a program crashes, terminals go dark.
"It wasn't that the backup didn't work," Pierce said. "It just took some time to catch up. This is an anomaly. I can't remember the last time we had a significant outage."
Autotote is changing its policy about when hubs are switch from main power sources to auxiliary power. The final decision now rests solely with the tote company, according to Pierce.