I went to Aqueduct on Saturday....yeah, it was a slow summer day in Queens. I wanted to check out Longshots, where, we were told by NYRA's CEO Chris Kay at the recent board meeting, business has been pretty brisk since racing moved on to Belmont and Saratoga. I was a little taken aback when I crossed the great divide between Resorts World and World Class Racing from Saratoga via HDTV. I'd been focused on Longshots, and kinda forgot that the first floor of the old clubhouse is open for business for simulcasting. Seemed like any other day at the races.
Ah yes, The Big A, in all its glory. They're really gonna close this place? It was pretty packed down there. True, the 3rd floor and the 2nd other than Longshots were closed. But it was sure lively, to say the least!
I remember how much of a novelty the whole concept of simulcasting was when "Aquetoga" first opened in 1984; thousands of fans jammed into the plant to watch races on TV....and for just one track; seems almost inconceivable today! Got a lot of press....and many people found it to be a rather amusing spectacle.
It was also, believe it or not, a pretty pleasant place to spend a summer day. There was the big grassy backyard area, left over from the failed one-year experiment in 1976 when racing shifted back to Aqueduct from Belmont in July; the thinking being that Aqueduct was more accessible than Belmont, and that people would come for the new ambiance and for concerts. "The new landscaping is designed to soften the Big A's image of asphalt and concrete," the Times reported in its 'At the Race Tracks' column on 6/30/1976 (not credited, but I believe the writer was Steve Cady). (Interestingly, the column also noted that Sunday racing, which had been introduced at Saratoga the year before, would not be conducted there in 1976. And that Roosevelt Raceway would "trot out some high-wheel sulkies from the Civil War period for an exhibition race" to celebrate the bicentennial.) So we would bring chairs and blankets to hang in the backyard just like at any old track. I remember pretty vividly being there the day that the stewards DQ'd the wrong horse in 1986.
That backyard is now of course part of the parking lot for Resorts World. Which is actually preferable to the sad state of disrepair into which it had fallen for many years.
Despite its supposed short-term future, there were some new renovations at the Big A. The Champs bar on the first floor is finally getting its long overdue makeover. I don't know if it had gotten any prior attention much after the time that the picture of the 1940 Stanley Cup Champion Rangers that hung there was taken.
Also, they've removed the walls that formed an enclosed viewing area just outside of Champs, opening up the whole space. The ugly desks that were there have been replaced by rows of comfortable looking seats. Hallelujah!
Anyway....oh yeah, back to Longshots. That's why I was there. And because I wasn't thinking in terms of the track being otherwise open, I'd been wondering what the admission policy would be, whether they would still charge $5 for non-NYRA Rewards members to get in. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that, in fact, for the Saratoga meet only (presumably, though nobody could actually confirm that), the admission has been increased to $5 for NYRA Rewards members, and $10 for non-members.
Nobody really seemed to mind though. It seemed about as crowded as I'd seen on live racing weekend days (other than the Wood); all of the seats with individual TV's were taken, the players club was full, and the crowd in the bar area got bigger as the day went on.
Those of us who have been going for all those years can clearly see the footprint of the old Kelso and Man O'War rooms. It wasn't what I would call an elaborate renovation, but it's a really nice room. And besides, if there was any skimping involved, I blame Genting 100%.
NYRA is of course squarely focused on achieving profitability separate of slots. So, whether it's increased admission to Saratoga or to Longshots, not letting people in for free if they were wearing pink on Fabulous Fillies day, or slashing departmental budgets, they are exploring all options. The quest seems to have taken on a life on its own, and become more of a mantra than a mandate; we haven't heard much at all from the governor or his attack dog Robert Megna on the subject of late. Of course, it would be just a tad hypocritical for Cuomo and his minions to criticize NYRA for being partially subsidized by slots revenue while he is expanding casinos so that the state can sordidly balance its budget on the backs of people losing their money at slot machines. (Not that I would put it past them, of course.) (And it seems to me that even if NYRA was able to show a profit on its income statement from racing operations alone, as long as its purses and capital expenditures are boosted by VLT money, it still would be dependent on slots.)
- Tom Noonan writes about the "big day" strategy, noting that the crowds on those event days have not been as big as hoped. (Overall handle has been sharply higher though.) As I've said, I love the way that Martin Panza has taken charge and decisively implemented his strategy. But what I've always been concerned/skeptical about regarding the idea of occasionally luring a big live audience with a loaded race card, is this: even if you get the people there, how do you get them to bet? That's what Jeff Gural was talking about recently with regard to the Meadowlands:
"Even as we continue to work to get younger people in there I don't think they are going to bet," he said. "It's not their thing. To give you an idea, we probably sold one program for every three people that were there on Hambletonian Day. What does that tell you? Two-thirds of the people there didn't need a program, so they were either betting on names or not betting at all." [Harness Racing Update, via Pullthepocket]Gural says that his track did indeed attract some new younger people there - that's a start. But how do you get them to bet? Back when Gulfstream was Gulfstream and they had concerts in the backyard (just about where there's a Crate and Barrel now), they would hand out $2 vouchers to everyone who walked in, gather the concert goers around the stage, and literally attempt to force feed them with speakers and instructional videos on how to bet on the races. I don't know how successful that was....and now, with everyone tied into their smartphones, one would probably need to resort to drastic measures in order to eggiweg them on to pay attention.
I dunno, maybe some of those spots in the Meadowlands are a little too nice and distracting, and need a little dose of the hardcore like at Longshots? Getting the balance right is part of the challenge and the opportunity that NYRA has as they hopefully devise a plan to fill the void left by NYC OTB with teletheaters; at the last board meeting, Michael Dubb promised to report on the matter later in the year. To me, seeing all those people at Aqueduct - some even willing to pay good money for a comfortable seat with a TV - is an indication that such facilities, done the right way, would be quite successful in Manhattan and other boroughs. (Though obviously they'd be shooting for a younger crowd than that which populates Aqueduct in August.) And I believe those facilities could actually be more conducive to getting new people to bet than at a track on a crowded day. Instead of being out in some backyard not paying attention, they would be literally surrounded by racing on big screens; constant action going on. There, just maybe, possibly, you could better engage people with contests, giveaways, and lottery-style wagering. Just to get them involved in having an interest in the outcome of a race, in any way possible. And it could perfectly complement the 'big day' strategy; give on-track attendees coupons and offers for their nearest NYRA teletheater (we don't want to call them OTB's anymore). (And does anyone really see a bright future for this sport if they don't migrate towards racing at night?)
- OK, I'm hardly a prude when it comes to alcohol, and surely not one to lecture on its morality. But I found it, let's say, a little odd on Saturday, watching the goings-on in the winners circle following the Knob Creek Lake Placid stakes. I dunno....maybe I'm totally off base here and just being silly. However, amidst all the furor over drugs in the sport and cleaning up the game, there was trainer Bill Mott posing for a photo with a bottle of bourbon in his hand, as others were being passed around. Now, I know. Doping a horse and having a nightcap are two totally different things. But we're talking about what would be a drastic change of culture in the sport. And cultural changes have to start at the grass roots and permeate throughout the entire community. So, the sight of Bill Mott smiling with a bottle of Knob Creek in his hand seemed, just a tad........well, in this Today in Racing post, I called it 'somehow inappropriate.' I'm going to walk that back, to 'somewhat incongruous.' Either way, it just seemed a bit off. Even Mott looked a little uncomfortable, and quickly handed it off after the photo. (I would have been glad to take it off his hands.)
- Once again, I've been writing about the racing at Saratoga in my Today in Racing column on the TimeformUS blog.