They came in shorts and sandals, suits and ties, spandex and dark suntans. Some wearing silly hats, others in fancy hats, many without hats at all. Opening day at Del Mar has become quite a tradition for San Diegans and other Californians who like to see and be seen at the track where the turf meets the surf. The jam-packed grandstand, infield, and track apron rocked with 33,526 of them on Del Mar's 62nd opening on July 18.

Not enough of those opening-day revelers will be back, however, until the 2002 season launches. And that is one of racing's biggest challenges, one that no one yet has figured out: how to take the once- or twice-a-year racegoer and turn him or her into a more frequent fan who understands and enjoys pari-mutuel wagering.

Del Mar isn't the only racetrack that can draw a crowd for special occasions. Monmouth Park will have a full house for the Haskell Invitational. Likewise the Travers at Saratoga, the Million at Arlington Park, opening day at Santa Anita, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, the Spiral Stakes at Turfway, the Triple Crown races, and a handful of other annual events.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is conducting its second annual mystery mutuel voucher promotion July 28 in hopes of creating a day when attendance is boosted at tracks throughout the country. NTRA officials say they are mailing 1.2 million of the mystery pari-mutuel vouchers, each worth at least $2 and one worth $1 million. Twenty-three tracks are participating. Last year, 7.7% of the tickets mailed were redeemed, but the $1-million ticket was not among them. Many who redeemed the vouchers would have gone racing that day anyway, but it's reasonable to conclude the promotion has a positive effect on attendance.

It's not enough, however, to boost on-track attendance for just a day. The NTRA has done little to convert the once- or twice-a-year racegoer into a more frequent fan, and that should be one of its primary goals. Shortly after its founding, the NTRA said fan education would be an important part of its operation, but that objective apparently has been put on the back burner.

The NTRA has some wonderful partners to work with, including Equibase, TVG, and Daily Racing Form, not to mention its own television production company and numerous racetrack members. Yet there is precious little in the way of basic handicapping information being provided to beginners, especially on those occasions, such as Del Mar's opening, when racetracks are full of novices. Few NTRA telecasts include handicapping tips from which new fans can benefit. And on-track efforts to untangle the sometimes confusing world of handicapping and past performances, through "fan friendly" programs, have failed.

The NTRA should lead the way in producing fan education material and follow through with racetracks to make sure people walking through the gates for the first time know the information is available to them.

The NTRA also should put its television production company to better use, creating a series of generic 30- or 60-second handicapping tips. Partners at TVG, Daily Racing Form, and partner racetracks would be instrumental in providing the insights and talent needed. Tracks could run the video tips on in-house closed circuit systems, particularly on weekends and big days. They could also become a regular part of NTRA telecasts.

Most racetracks are completely ignoring their printed programs--both those with and without Equibase past performances--as educational tools. The NTRA should create and update educational material (including schedules for national racing telecasts), make it available to its member tracks, then follow up to see if it is being used properly.

Fan education should remain a core program for the NTRA.

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