Small Tracks Moving Forward in New Era

For independently-owned racetracks, competing successfully with ever-expanding racetrack conglomerates such as Magna Entertainment Corp. and Churchill Downs Inc. may be difficult but can be done, track officials maintained during the "Going it Alone" panel discussion at the 29th Symposium on Racing in Tucson Thursday.

Both time-tested business methods, such as quality service and clean facilities, along with innovative marketing ideas are the keys to maintaining an independent tracks viability in the modern market, agreed Beulah Park general manager Michael Weiss and Los Alamitos director of marketing and simulcasting Jeff True.

Other factors pointed out by the panel to help ensure success for small and mid-sized were finding alternative uses for track facilities during the off-season and improving the market share of a track's simulcast signal.

Weiss said small tracks unable to match the quality of racing of its competitors needs to offer full fields to bettors to ensure it success and to have its simulcast signal stand out among the wide-array of choices.

"Most people know the Beulah Twins," Weiss said, referring to the female on-track handicappers for Beulah, Katie and Jenna Felty. "The whole idea behind that was someone sitting at a simulcasting facility looks up from the Form and says 'What's that?" Then, they may see a 12-horse field and say 'Hey, there is value in that field.'"

Weiss added Beulah's handle has quadrupled since the twins were added to the simulcast six years ago.

True also indicated, perhaps with a slight jab to the uniformed Churchill Downs Inc. Simulcast Network, that independent tracks may have one advantage in simulcasting because "if you homogenize your signal, you're doing yourself more harm than good." Tracks need to think of their simulcasting signal as "a silent movie," with quality information on-screen and top video production that gives the signal brand identity.

Target marketing was unanimously viewed by the panel, which also included Balmoral and Maywood Park's director of simulcasting Jim Hannon and Dairyland Greyhound Park general manager Bill Apgar, as an excellent way to help a track's bottom line. Programs such as the Golden State Rewards Network in California allows tracks to find who is coming to the track and then offer incentives to casual fans through such things as direct mailing to coax their return.

Target marketing can also help track officials offer better service to their biggest bettors. True relayed an example of an unknown bettor at Los Alamitos who it was discovered would "slip in and out" of the track and bet $100,000 a month with just a dozen or so wagers. Through the Rewards program, however, Los Alamitos was able to identify the bettor "and now we can take care of him," True said.

Finding revenue sources during the off-season has been a particular focus of Weiss for Beulah Park. Hot air balloon races, Fourth of July fireworks, concerts, and even a large mud volleyball tournament have been productive revenue streams for Beulah during its dark summer months in recent years.

"It's amazing how you can transform your facility with just a little imagination," Weiss said.

Well-maintained facilities were also said to be a key of having customers return to the track. Hannon called it the "wow" factor -- either a customer will be impressed with the track and return, or, "a person will say wow, this is not very good and this is not where I want to spend my entertainment dollar," he said.

Said True: "Cleanliness is a priority. If there is trash on the floor or the bathrooms are smelly, you aren't going to get a repeat customer."
While independent tracks continue to admirably hold their position in the racing market, their fight for survival does remain a constant, panelists admitted.

"Our biggest challenge," Weiss said during his opening remarks, "is to trying to figure out what the biggest challenge is. Its just survival and being able to keep going."