Why can’t all of California racing be more like Del Mar?
Keith Brackpool, who took over as chairman of the California Horse Racing Board earlier this year, challenged his state to embrace racing’s fun factor. Make it exciting to actually go to the races, not just watch online or on TV. Get back on track, he said, because it’s a great place to be.
“In Europe, everybody goes to the races,” said Brackpool, a native of the United Kingdom. “But here, so many people have just not gone to a horse race. It’s staggering. What we’ve got to do is improve the experience. We’ve got to get our live audience back.”
Brackpool addressed his comments to about 100 breeders and horsemen Sept. 24 at the 13th annual Harris Ranch Seminar, presented by the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and Oak Tree Racing Association.
Hosted by CHRB commissioner and long-time breeder John Harris, the two-day event focused on marketing the sport and the horse in a tough economy. Last year’s workshop was canceled due to tight budgets.
While the recession leveled major blows to racing’s welfare, Brackpool noted that it also provided needed impetus for change.
“Five, six years ago, the industry was in complete denial,” he said. “Structural change was needed. Last year was the first time people came up to me and said, ‘This thing is broken’—which is good. People realize now change is needed.”
He believes a new law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may help kick start racing’s reinvention. The bill, which goes into effect Jan. 1, increases takeout on exotic wagers and clears the way for exchange wagering, or head-to-head betting, in 2012 after CHRB creates rules to regulate that form of betting.
“We offer in California the premier racing product on a year-round basis,” he said, “but we were offering our first-class product at a discount price. We’re changing the pricing model. We left win-place-show where it is. But we came up with a solution that will produce $30 million more a year. That’s a 25-to-30% increase in overnight purses.
“Exchange wagering is wildly popular overseas,” Brackpool added. “All the legislation does is enable it to happen.”
California needed an alternative to ontrack casino wagering, he noted.
“Slots are not a long-term panacea,” Brackpool said. “I see them only as a five- to seven-year fix. The idea that we need to be more casino-like won’t work in California and is an option we don’t have anyway (due to tribal casino opposition)… If we take away the sport and make it a slot machine, we’ll die.”
Instead, he recommended California horsemen shift away from slot envy back to celebrating the sport itself.
“But the first thing we need to do is improve the product," he said. "You don’t re-market a product that’s struggling—first, you fix it.”
Brackpool pointed to Del Mar, which saw its attendance increase again this summer, as an example. Its 2010 daily average attendance was 17,906—up 26% since 2000. In the past decade, the popular seaside track has branded itself as a fun beach party scene with live concerts and youthful audience. This summer, 70% of its crowd was between age 18 and 49; 40% of its fans are female.
“A great deal of resentment goes towards Del Mar,” he said. “At Del Mar, they don’t take anything for granted. In our sport, too many people take things for granted.”
Brackpool ultimately would like to see California racing learn from other successful examples. He said, “If you could merge British racing experience with the American football model, you would have the greatest thing you could experience.”