I had heard from more than just a couple of seasoned Saratoga horseplayers that they were skeptical of the announced crowds there this season. So, the front page headline news in the Saratogian that NYRA is padding the figures - while still a surprise just for its sheer audacity and scale - is hardly a shock.
The New York Racing Association counts its more than 6,370 season pass holders in its paid attendance each day at Saratoga Race Course, regardless of whether those pass holders actually show up. [Saratogian]The Troy Record's Nick Kling figured on Twitter that, based on an assumption that a season pass holder is likely to average around ten visits a meet, "total reported attendance for meet will need to be reduced by about 4700/day or 188,000 for entire 40 days to reflect an accurate picture." Even if Nick is underestimating the average amount of visits, the announced figures are surely exaggerated to a sufficient degree to affect year-to-year comparisons that generally only vary by a few points at most.
NYRA's Director of Communications and Media Relations John Durso Jr., responding via email to Saratogian reporter Paul Post, responded:
“This policy is not new and was in place last year.....It is also the same policy used by professional sports such as Major League Baseball and the NFL.”Yeah, this guy Durso, formerly the Senior Director and Chief Spokesperson for NJ Transit, is a piece of work. We discussed his Super experience for this job in this post; wherein we also showed how he tried to fool us into thinking he knew something about racing by telling us that he was a "a longtime Capital District resident who spent numerous summers at Saratoga" (without specifying whether he was ever at the track; chances are he was probably just hanging out at The Rafters).
“Our paid attendance figures are consistent, accurate and — as opposed to the past where spinners were counted in attendance figures — fully transparent.”
Where do we start with his disingenuous response to this article? The policy may have indeed been in place last year, but the season passes were only 1,402 as opposed to this year's figure. (Though that still raises questions as to when exactly this method of counting came to be, and how much it has distorted the already declining crowd figures from over the years.) Pro sports teams do count season tickets whether people show up or not. But that is a bogus comparison. Those are "tickets sold" numbers; the fans have already paid the full price of the ticket for the game so it's perfectly fair that they are counted. A $50 clubhouse pass is around 15% of the cost of individual admissions.
By referring to the new policy of not counting spinners, Durso changes the topic to something completely unrelated in order to obfuscate the accusation, a common tactic of PR. However - while they are surely being "consistent" by adding on 6,370 people every day - by claiming that the method is "accurate," he injects an interesting approach to the art of public relations - an absolute and outright falsehood. You can spin this thing a thousand different ways and it will never come out as "accurate." You want to be accurate? Tell us how many people come in through the turnstile whether they pay or present a pass. Period. And the idea that NYRA is being "transparent" is also a joke, and an insult to our intelligence. It was only due to Paul Post's reporting that we know of this policy - I'm assuming that NYRA was otherwise not going to let us in on the secret. What's more, the attendance figures are, for the first time in my memory, not included in the Equibase result charts because, I can only assume, they are not provided in time for publication. I wouldn't think that it takes that much time to add 6,370 to the turnstile count. [UPDATE: I see that they've now been added to the charts.]
This revelation may also shed more light on NYRA's decision to abruptly pull the plug on pass sales, declaring them "sold out." The padding had already led some to grow suspicious of the attendance figures. Had the sales continued, and continued to grow, they could very well have reached the point when, on certain slow days, the number of phantom attendees would exceed the number of those actually there!
Of course, handle figures, total and per capita, are the money shot - the bottom line of how on-track business is faring. But inflating the attendance figures in this way also skews the per capita, and this represents a contradiction of NYRA's citing of the negative skewing of those numbers as one of the stated reasons why they changed their policy on spinners. Besides, as we've seen, handle numbers can be manipulated too. I'm not at all suggesting that NYRA is currently, or has any intentions of, doing so. However, when you deceive the public in one area, it is never unfair for someone to suspect that you're being dishonest in others as well.
- I wrote about the weak edition of the Whitney, and more about Saturday's card, on the TimeformUS blog here.