SBJ/October 29-November 4, 2012/In Depth

Tracks focus on improving the fan experience

With so many sports trying to improve the fan experience, horse racing doesn’t plan to get left at the gate.

Tracks and horse racing organizations are making sure fans enjoy their day at the races with such efforts as improved Wi-Fi access, new areas to socialize, and horseplayer development programs.

On Sunday, Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby and one of the oldest tracks in the country, was set to open the “The Plaza,” a newly remodeled area next to the paddock featuring picnic tables where fans can gather and socialize before and after the races.

Keeneland uses events such as college day to attract younger fans to the track.
Photo by: Nike Communications
“The Plaza is another way we are going after the whole social, entertainment aspect,” said Ryan Jordan, general manager of Churchill Downs Racetrack.

This fall Churchill plans to hold happy hours at the Plaza where fans can enjoy drink specials, listen to bands and watch horse racing.

For the highest-end regular customers, Churchill this year unveiled plans for “The Mansion,” an area of the track that is being re-modeled in time for the 2013 Kentucky Derby. Tickets to the area, which includes a private wine cellar and a butler, reportedly will be sold for between $9,000 and $12,500 for groups of people for Kentucky Oaks and Derby weekend.

But Churchill is looking to improve the experience for all guests. Toward that goal, the track is studying how much it would cost to blanket the facility with Wi-Fi access. In the last few years, the track has set up a Wi-Fi system that allows customers to place wagers on races from their smartphones. But currently, the service is only available in certain areas of the track.

“We want to make the Wi-Fi network more robust,” Jordan said. “You can’t do it in the infield right now. We want to improve our network, so, hopefully on Kentucky Derby day with 165,000 people here, we want to have a Wi-Fi network in place that will allow every customer to wager from a smartphone.”

Nearby Keeneland, in Lexington, Ky., also is investing in technology to make the experience better for guests.

Keeneland was one of the first tracks to feature smartphone wagering and this year has improved the wagering and odds
information for each race horse before the race, said Vince Gabbert, chief executive officer of Keeneland Association.

“We are the first track to go to decimal odds, so rather than 5-to-1, you can see 10 dollars and 40 cents,” he said, a reference to a $2 win bet paying $10.40.

Keeneland also is working to attract younger fans who are not experienced horseplayers. During its college day, for example, Keeneland gives away 10, $1,000 scholarships to college students. “On average we have 5,000 college students come in,” Gabbert said. “It’s just a fun day.”

Keeneland is one of several tracks that are trying to find ways to lure local fans of other sports to horse racing. Keeneland started a tailgating day on Saturdays for football fans of local colleges.

Arlington Park has, for the past two years, worked with Chicago sports teams to put together promotions such as Blackhawks day or Bears day at the track. The track also has hosted Northwestern University and the Chicago White Sox. Typically with such programs, former or current players and coaches come out, meet with fans and give autographs.

Saratoga set up a tent at its summer meet to help newcomers learn how to place bets, including exactas and trifectas.
Santa Anita Park in the Los Angeles area has catered to team loyalties as well by hosting the USC marching band.

Santa Anita CEO Mark Verge said he is looking for ways to attract casual sports and entertainment fans and then turn them into avid horse racing fans. He thinks racetracks need to do more to show fans just how much fun horse racing is, or in emphasizing the gambling aspect of the sport.

“When people come to a game they can cheer a team,” Verge said. “When you go to a racetrack, you can bet. You are part of it. People have to understand it. It’s gambling. It’s so much fun, and we have not delivered that message. And that’s what we have to do better.”

Rodnell Workman was named the first chief marketing officer for the
New York Racing Association in May, after working as vice president of marketing strategy for Madison Square Garden. He’s also worked stints at the NFL and for the New York Giants.

Workman said he wants to change the image of the racetrack from a place for hard-core gamblers, mostly older men, to an entertainment option for younger people and families.

“We want horse racing to be in the discussion when you are debating going to the movies or a park or whatever,” Workman said. “From my perspective, a lot of it has to come by the way you are presenting your business.”

NYRA operates the Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga racetracks. Workman said he could not reveal specific plans he has to enhance the fan experience until they are approved by the state and the new NYRA board, but he did say that the association is working harder at teaching the casual fan how to become an avid fan and a horseplayer.

During this past season at Saratoga’s popular summer meet, for example, NYRA set up a tent to teach fans how to bet exactas and trifectas. Fans new to racing pushed $45,000 through the betting machines over three summer weekends in the newcomers tent, he said.

Such efforts will help counter the “dying sport” label horse racing has battled for years.

Said Workman, “I think the sport is ripe for a rebirth.”
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