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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Twilight Saga: Post Time

Sorry again for that misinformation about Friday's card at Belmont. Honestly, I had no idea that last Friday's Party in the Park was scheduled as the only 3 PM twilight post time of the year. In fact, I had planned this coming Friday around it, and was working on an elaborate scheme to take the afternoon off for the remaining Fridays of the meet. I'm not exaggerating in the least when I say that the twilight cards are the clear highlight of the Belmont spring meet for me (before racing moves to Saratoga for seven - count 'em - weekends).

A couple of readers suggested that budgetary concerns were at the root of the cutback, and I thought that made sense given the extra costs that must be involved in conducting racing until later in the day. In an email response to my query, NYRA's Director of Communications & Media Relations Dan Silver did cite bottom line considerations, but explained that the reasoning was more complex than a matter of increased expenses:

"Basically, we were not convinced that the Party at the Park later post time equated to larger total handle, and also felt that by allocating more resources (advertising, marketing, promotions, etc...) into making the one Party at the Park a big success, we could truly make it a special event. Once the meet is over, we will look back at the numbers and next year we will figure out whether we want to stay at just one 3 p.m. post at Belmont or expand the program again.

Last year we ran six Party at the Parks at Belmont (June 12, 19, 26, July 10, 17, 24), with varying levels of success. After looking closely at the numbers from those dates, we determined that it might be useful to pull back on the number of Party at the Parks and put more resources into making sure that the one we did was successful."
Indeed, the June 18 Party in the Park drew a crowd of 7,921, an increase of 73% from the corresponding twilight card last year; and significantly larger than any of the six twilight cards from 2009, none of which were greater than 6,000. However, Silver points out that last week, on June 11, with a 1 PM post time, NYRA achieved an increase in handle over last year's corresponding 3 PM card (despite a crowd that was 1,800 smaller), that was roughly comparable to the increase it saw on the June 18 Party in the Park vs last year. He also notes that NYRA would not be able to afford having a band with the stature of Big Shot if they ran the Party every week. "Obviously it is still early, and we don’t know how the handle for the next four Fridays at Belmont will compare to last year, but I hope you can see the basic premise behind pulling back on the number of Party at the Parks."

That's all well and good, and certainly understandable given NYRA's financial plight. But by focusing only on the hard and cold numbers, I think that NYRA is missing a far larger point. By simply moving post time back by two hours, NYRA was able to create a festive atmosphere that we rarely experience at its downstate racetracks; even a carnival ambience in years past when they brought in magicians and jugglers. I've previously described the crowd at the twilight cards as delirious; it's as happy a racetrack crowd that you'll ever see. I mean, there you are having escaped early from work, sitting in a setting as delightful as the Belmont backyard on a (hopefully) beautiful Friday afternoon, a full summer weekend still to come, it's 4 PM, and it's only the third race! What can be better, I ask you? The crowd builds as the cards go along as businessmen arrive with their ties undone and their clothes disheveled; the drinks are flowing, Munick is playing Hot Tuna covers...and with the fans concentrated in the back, the place seems crowded, the joint is alive! There's a genuine buzz in the air that you just don't get there on normal days, even, for the most part, on the weekends.

I can't quantify how much, or if, this all translates into new customers or repeat business. It certainly can't hurt though, and I'd guess it helps. And whatever the case, how about the massive goodwill created by providing its customers with an experience that they all supremely enjoy and appreciate? I know I'm speaking of my own personal impressions and experience, but, based on my twilight track outings and conversations with fellow horseplayers, I think that a substantial majority of racing fans around here would agree.

So sure, NYRA should check the numbers to see if re-instituting the expanded twilight program makes sense. The business is driven by handle after all; Dan Silver points out that, for one thing, the later post time causes NYRA to miss out on simulcast handle from eastern tracks that start at their normal times. (Hopefully, NYRA's financial outlook will improve to the point where it doesn't have to be quite so attuned to the facts and figures.) But I imagine that the feedback from its regular customers on the move will not be enthusiastic, starting, perhaps, with Charlie Hayward's live web chat on Friday night at 8 PM. Unfortunately, we'll all have plenty of time to be home from the track to let him know what we think.

12 Comments:

Joe Appelbaum said...

Alan
The larger question is - Why does NYRA or any other racetrack run on weekdays? Shouldn't they all be running at night during the week?

The NBA and NFL would never have the hubris to run during a time when their customers would normally be working. MLB has the occasional weekday game, but that in and of itself makes it a special event.

Why does horse racing think it can get away with?

This is a vestige of 50 years ago, something that should have been changed as soon as the attendance numbers started to dwindle in the late 1970's.

steve in nc said...

I agree with you both. I'll take it further and say NYRA should apply that "do it less often so we can do it better" approach to it's whole schedule and race at the most 4 days a week when downstate. Wouldn't that at least help with the field size/quality problem?

If NYRA implemented Joe A's suggestion, I'd be likely to play some races from afar after the kids are in bed.

El Angelo said...

My guess is that all the players involved--trainers, jockeys, tellers, executives--don't want to have a job that requires them to work at night. But you're not wrong.

Anonymous said...

NYRA is legislated to run a certain number of days which precludes running less than five days a week. This is fairly common knowledge yet gets ignored over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Anonymous said...

Actually, over and over and over again, everywhere one turns these days, in regards to NYRA making a change, one here that's it's the legislature that controls this or that in regards to pretty much every single aspect of racing.

Funny, that.

NJ, which is even more of a state run, state legislated track, moved pretty quickly to "un-legislate" their allotment of 170 racing days this year.

It's only a matter of time before pretty much all the tracks are running 2-3 days a week. The MTH 'experiment' (I call it 'common sense'...except for that purse structure part...hmm..$100k open stakes and $75k state bred msw's...yeah okay!) is turning out to be a real eye opener. Why bother running the extra 2 days a week when you can run 3 for the same overall handle and less overhead?

alan said...

This all makes sense. But New York politicians have a tough time with the "less is more" approach to racing, at least based on takeout.

Anonymous said...

NYRA misses the big picture of getting a younger fan base involved.

Having Party in the Park every Friday would substantially attract a more diverse clientele. A lot of local bands have a cult type following and having themed parties similar to Churchill's disco night are a couple ways to do it without having to pay out the big bucks.

Party in the Park is a success at Saratoga as food and drink concessions alone cover any overhead.

Racing needs to think outside the box a bit if it wants to survive. Common sense is if you get the fans there then you have to gain or maintain their interest in the product. How about a $1 voucher with each food and drink purchase? How about a free program with paid admission after a certain time? How about free admission and program on a return visit? How about a free grand slam quick pick?

As great as Jassen and Andy are don't you think that NYRA lost all of its glamour when Jan Ruston left? The whole face of NYRA is middle-aged men in suits talking nonsense. Educating the current fan base is not what is needed. (BTW - Eric should stick to doing the morning line and avoid any contact with live cameras!)

Gulfstream Park had a 20 something year-old female doing their paddock show and she was as sharp as could be. She obviously was well schooled by Marketing Department head Catin Bredar. They also had $1 draft beer daily and $1 hot dog day and $1 pizza day.

Stupid is as stupid does (or something like that).

El Angelo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Angelo said...

I love that everyone excuses NYRA's behavior or lack of receptiveness to change to the draconian laws of New York. What's stopping them from lobbying for change? Because if they're doing so, they're doing it quietly and poorly.

Figless said...

One other factor, the horsemen hate the late start.

I concure with everything Alan, wrote, it was as festive an atmosphere as I have ever seen at Belmont on a non- Belmont Stakes Day.

Smiles on everyone's face, and it had everything to do with the great weather, gambling, and TGIF mentality and little to do with the pending appearance by Big Shot, who were a decent Billy Joel cover band but hardly a huge draw.

I stayed for four songs, and I estimate about 300 folks paying full attention to the band. They were very good at what they do, but for most of the folks hanging out it could have been anyone in the tent.

As for the all source handle increase, I wonder how much is derived from MTH's increased crowd?

In prior years, every time I went to MTH the crowd seemed to more interested in the simulcast from BEL then the live product. Despite the increases in on-track handle at MTH I am certain there is more money going through the windows on the NYRA product as well.

And wasn't one of the arguments for the 3pm post that the West Coast handle would more than offset the reduction from the East Coast. Would be interesting if Steve Crist could do one of his race by race handle by pool breakdowns comparing the early and later start.

A rainy day or a big carryover could be enough to skew the numbers.

Don't get me wrong, I am happy handle is up, just not a big enough sample to draw any conclusions which in fairness the NYRA spokesman indicates.

Figless said...

PS- Free suggestion to NYRA, avoid tribute bands.

While they have a core audience, some of whom will follow them everywhere, the crowd that attends the races are much more likely to hang around to see a more diverse playlist.

I was in the mood to party, had no plans, but not being a big Billy Joel fan after the fourth straight BJ song I took my money to one of my neighborhood pubs.

And you might want to start the band during the races. I know the tent is near the paddock but half the place was empty before the first note was struck. IF you are going to do this seriously need to consider moving the stage (and tent) to a point further from the paddock so both the music and horses can co-exist.

Figless said...

El Angelo, nothing is stopping them from lobbying for change, they do so regularly, but Albany is a very tough nut to crack as the below news illustrates.

NYRA proposed this very logical law change allowing uncoupling of entries by the same trainer for different owners almost five years ago and it finally has come to fruition.

Change takes forever in Albany, they can not even get the damn budget completed, or the Franchise awarded, how is NYRA supposed to influence these idiots and thieves?