Anne M. Eberhardt

Youthful View: Racing Can Grow If It Adapts

The University of Arizona symposium kicked off Dec. 6 with several panel sessions.

Several of the younger racetrack executives in the United States and overseas believe horse racing isn’t going away any time soon—if the industry can adapt.

Erich Zimny, director of racing operations at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, said claims the industry is “dying” aren’t accurate. The better term, he said, is “failing.”

“This is not death,” Zimny said. “Death isn’t reversible. But failure is.”

Zimny and others kicked off the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing & Gaming in Tucson the morning of Dec. 6 with a wake-up call that it’s time to think and act differently. Some initiatives are under way, while others are on wish lists.

Some racetracks have begun addressing pricing structure, and Charles Town is one of them. The West Virginia track in September lowered its pari-mutuel takeout rate from 25% to 22% on certain wagers, and thus far handle on those bets has increased.

Comparing Sept. 18-Nov. 19 with the same period in 2010, Pick 4 handle is up 55.85%, Pick 3 handle has increased 16.78%, and superfecta pools are 11.38% larger, Zimny said. Handle on trifectas was up marginally at 0.08%.

Zimny called on other racetracks to “take risks” by lowering takeout rates, but he also said transparency is needed to give the industry an idea of what works.

“If we do not release the results, how can we come to collective and informed decisions on what the right price point is?” Zimny said.

Andrea Young, president of Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, offered a list of things she’d like to see happen—no matter how impossible they may seem. Among them are a national office, a nationalized horsemen’s group, a “President’s Cup” of horse racing, a reversed advance deposit wagering model that gives more money to the host track, consolidation of racing dates, and improved customer service.

“We do a great job presenting a pretty dysfunctional industry,” Young said. “It’s like watching the NBA lockout every year.”

Raj Mutti, regional general manager of BC Racing, which owns Hastings Racecourse & Slots in British Columbia, described how the track underwent a major rebranding in 2008 when it added 600 slot machines. Mutti said horse racing figured prominently in the marketing and advertising campaign.

“We went viral and in-your-face,” he said. “We wanted to make Hastings a place to be seen in Vancouver.”

Hastings focused on the fan experience, technology such as social media, entertainment, and greater community involvement. It combined those with “guerrilla marketing” to get attention in the marketplace and in turn drive attendance on live racing days and nights.

Axelle Maitre, secretary general of the League of Racing Pays d’Auge, which oversees racing at Clairefontaine racetrack in France, outlined an ambitious and unusual marketing strategy unheard of in the U.S. The track’s slogan—“I Love Clairefontaine”—appears on mass-produced items such as sugar containers, cheese wrappers, and even napkins and paper placemats at local McDonald’s restaurants.

Maitre said Clairefontaine, which has more than 100 varieties of flowers in its many gardens, is removed from major cities unlike other tracks and therefore has to drive local business. It races only 17 days in July and August but is open year-round for tours, parties, and community events.

Zimny also touched on racing dates. The legislative minimum at Charles Town is 220 racing days a year, but by contract with horsemen the track was approved for 235 days in 2012.

Zimny used handle on this year’s Charles Town Classic, a grade II event next year, to show how patrons respond to quality racing. Handle on the one race—about $784,000—was higher than the total handle on each of 456 programs raced at the track since 2007.

“The public will pay attention to the best product,” Zimny said. “In this country we race too much, and the brand as a whole is being hurt.”

In a subsequent panel discussion on racehorse ownership and related issues, Ken Lowe, president of the Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, continued the theme. Lowe contended voters in Jefferson County, where Charles Town is located, approved slots and later table games on the premise the year-round racing program and related breeding industry would continue and even grow.

“I hear people saying now it’s too many days of racing,” Lowe said. “People in my county voted for Thoroughbred racing when they approved slots and table games. Now all of a sudden it’s too many days.

“(Year-round racing) contributes to $200 million a year in economic development. We don’t need less racing days; we need more cooperation from management. It was a forced marriage, but we want to make it work.”

Lowe said in order to foster cooperation between horsemen and racetrack management everywhere, executives should spend a month in the barn area working with horses everyday to develop an appreciation for what horsemen and their employees do every day to maintain live racing programs.