Tracks Struggle to Get Handle on Slots Players

Operators of racetracks with gaming devices continue to look for ways to drive pari-mutuel handle, but they admit converting slots players to handicappers is a long-term challenge.

The issue was discussed again during the recent Racino 2003 conference at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in West Virginia. Officials said there is no question gaming fuels purse increases that in turn generate more handle, but most of it comes from off-track sources.

"We still don't have enough live racing fans interested in attending," said Bruce McKee, general manager of Midway Slots at Simulcast at Harrington Raceway in Delaware. "But that doesn't mean track management can sit back and do nothing...I've found a common-sense approach is to include the track in almost any kind of advertising we have.

"Racing fans like other forms of gaming, but slots haven't created new pari-mutuel customers."

Jim Raferty, vice president of marketing for Wheeling Island Racetrack & Gaming Center in West Virginia, said there is a significant need for a new marketing model for racinos. He said one objective is to integrate racing into direct-mail programs and tie promotions to big-event racing days such as the Triple Crown race or Breeders' Cup.

Mountaineer has had such success, said Rose Mary Williams, the track's director of racing. With more than 130,000 names in its database, Mountaineer has found mystery mutuel voucher promotions not only drive traffic, they generate increased handle and higher slots play. Williams said she works with the marketing department on the gaming side to track such numbers.

Raferty said Canadian tracks have been more successful in integrating racing and gaming, and comments from officials at a few of those facilities support his contention.

Woodbine Entertainment Group operates Woodbine and Mohawk Raceway, which began slots operations in 2000 and 1999, respectively. Woodbine, believed to have the most lucrative slots floor anywhere with a "win" per machine of $859 (Canadian) per day from 1,716 machines, always looks for ways to drive pari-mutuel play, said Nick Eaves, senior vice president of marketing and business development for WEG.

"At Woodbine and Mohawk, we've had what I would characterize as modest success in interesting slots customers in racing products," Eaves said. "But because so little had been done for so long, we're suffering with a severe credibility challenge."

Eaves said WEG has had a bit more success in linking slots to live racing rather than slots to simulcasting. At Northlands Park in Alberta, Canada, a smaller, more compact operation--500 machines--lends itself to cross-promotion, said Les Butler, assistant general manager of racing and gaming.

"We've had fair success, but I wouldn't want to say it has been easy," Butler said.

Northlands offers free pari-mutuel wagers to slots players and also has 19 SEGA "Royal Ascot" machines that help educate slots players on pari-mutuel racing. When Northlands has a car giveaway, winners are determined by the outcome of a horse race.

"The enthusiasm we create, even among the also-rans, is very powerful," Butler said.

Butler also said Northlands wouldn't follow the lead of Mountaineer and other racinos that house most slot machines in a non-racing facility. With all the machines at the racetrack, Northlands can better integrate the two products, he said.

"Sometimes at these conferences it's hard not to be offended," Butler said. "Horse racing has flagged...Support for horse racing is a mile wide, but unfortunately, it's only an inch deep."