Friday, May 25, 2007

Successful Racing Blueprint - Less Is More

I rarely weigh in with comments on the racing industry as a whole. The focus of this blog is more directed at racing itself instead of the factors that contribute to the overall health of the racing industry. However an excellent article that Equidaily highlighted featured a story that struck me as the perfect model to move racing forward.

The article tells the story of Marquis Downs, a very small track in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. For those without a first rate GPS, Saskatoon is in central Canada about 800 miles due north of Cheyenne, Wyoming. In case you haven't quite got the picture this is not a booming metropolis, it was little wonder that their live racing product was suffering. However management made a few key changes to their ideology and have actually improved their business. The article is definitely worth the read and can be found here: Horse Racing Beats The Odds At Marquis Downs

A popular idea in racing these days is that we need a commissioner like the other professional sports. One centralized office that organizes and oversees tracks and gets everyone to work together towards the goal of a healthy industry. I would hope that if this position is ever created that the person in charge would have the three principles used at Marquis Downs ingrained in their mind. I think Marquis Downs is a microcosm of what racing should be like and that the business model created there would benefit the entire industry. Here are the principles or tenants that they used to turn things around

1. They reduced the number of racing dates - Marquis Downs went from having 50 live cards to just 30. They looked at what the fans were telling them and they decided to scrap mid-week racing and even all day racing. They only run evening cards on Friday and Saturday. Now I am not suggesting that racing get rid of all race cards during the day, it will be different for every track. The main issue is that they cut dates and only held cards that best suited their demographic. It is time that racing face up to the fact that a Thursday afternoon card has little to no appeal. Get rid of all the racing dates that have virtually no chance of attracting anyone aside from hardcore gamblers. They key to generating interest is creating the aura that the event is special. You create that aura by making it exclusive. Look at the most successful race meets in North America. Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland are all a big success because they are exclusive. You can only see racing there for a short time every year. Racing needs to face up to the fact that no other major sport runs year round on Tuesday afternoon. Create more novelty meets, and get rid of the notion that you have to run every day. I would even go as far to say that for the good of racing some racetracks might even need to close.

2. They reduced the number of races on each card - Another real key, people do not want to bet on or even watch races with 5 horses. Consolidate as much as you have to in order to improve the product on a race by race basis. By making all the races run on the weekend you create less spots for horses to run, basically forcing them all to run in the same races. Bigger field sizes create more interest and more handle. If you do not have enough horses on the grounds to fill 10 races then do not run 10 races. Training trends these days are leaning more and more towards running the horses less. Racing needs to react to this by removing the plethora of race options presented.

3. They changed the way they market a day at the races - Most of the advertising for racing is focused around trying to get people to wager on racing instead of other types of gambling. Marquis Downs by passed the whole idea of gambling and even in some ways distanced themselves from it. They refurbished their on track restaurants and marketed a night at the races as a place to get good food at reasonable prices. If anything they distanced themselves from gambling, they encouraged patrons to come out with their friends grab some food and a drink and simply watch and cheer. To the great racing minds currently running the game this sounds like suicide. After all, takeout from the handle is the primary source of income, the feeling around the racetrack is that fans who do not gamble are not an asset to the sport. But these people are guilty of unbelief in the power of the very thing they claim to love. Racings greatest asset is the fact that horse races are extremely exciting to watch. There is something intoxicating about it and Marquis Downs is living proof. By improving their racing product and encouraging people to just come and watch they increased their handle from $15,000 to $825,000 according to the article. That is mind boggling stuff and proof positive that you don't need to worry about handle. You need to get people out to the races, make them comfortable and let the magic of live racing take hold. Most people will not be able to just watch for very long, it is only natural to choose a rooting interest. Then when you see them actually win you dream of how you could have paid for your food with just a $2 investment. Next time you decide not to let the opportunity slip past.

Marquis Downs went from a ghost town with 5 horse fields to a small time thriving racetrack by offering racing at times when fans could actually watch, consolidating their product in order to improve it and making it a comfortable atmosphere that was not focused on cajoling the patrons into gambling. They simply wanted their customers to have a good time, believing that their product was good enough to ensure that. And guess what? The track, the fans and the sport of horse racing in Central Canada have all come out as winners.

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