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.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."
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."
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.