SBJ/May 4 - 10, 1998/No Topic Name

Santa Anita figures out how to pick them

El Nino didn’t rain on Santa Anita Park’s parade this year.

Despite one of the wettest winters on record in southern California, the race-track reversed a trend of 11 consecutive years of declining attendance, said Craig Dado, director of marketing.

Track attendance was up about 1 percent at Santa Anita’s just-ended 86-day meet, compared with declines of 1.7 percent, 6.4 percent and 9 percent in the last three years.

Dado attributes the turnaround to creative data marketing and aggressive direct mailings to its fan base. Santa Anita has 200,000 fans who carry "Thoroughbreds Club" cards, a "frequent flyer" type program where race-goers pay a lower admission price based on the number of times they swipe their cards at the gate, Dado said.

Nationally, tracks have been losing attendance on almost a double-digit percentage basis for the past five years, said Tim Smith, newly appointed commissioner and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "A few [tracks] were up this year," including Gulfstream Park in South Florida, Fair Grounds in the new Orleans area and Lone Star Park in the Dallas area, Smith said.

But most tracks are continuing to see a decline as a result of an aging fan base and more fans abandoning the track for simulcast facilities, he said.

The NTRA’s $10 million national television advertising campaign hit the air-waves April 22. The campaign is meant to attract new fans to horse racing and to create a national brand name, like the NBA and NFL, Smith said.

Santa Anita’s season ended two days before the TV commercials began airing, but Smith said he expects the track to benefit next year from the national exposure, as well as its own local efforts.

"I think that Santa Anita may be among the most sophisticated, if not the most, but others have done quite sophisticated micro-direct marketing," Smith said. "They will know in a certain census tract how many sports fans there are and how receptive they may be to thoroughbred racing."

Dado said Santa Anita mailed more than 2 million letters to fans this season, offering free tickets, prizes and cash betting vouchers. And the mailings are not random – Santa Anita knows exactly who its fans are and when they go to the track.

"We have got this incredible data base," Dado said. "We direct [mail] offers based on your behavior. If you only come on weekends, I’m not going to send you something you can use during the week."

Dado is sure the track would have attracted even more fans if it hadn’t been deluged with 31 inches of rain that fell on 11 of the meet’s 18 weekends this year. Rain will keep even the most hard-core horse players away, because an off track makes for unpredictable betting propositions, he said.

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