The first in a long line of ambitious changes being bandied about by new Santa Anita Park CEO Mark Verge will take place Friday when the Arcadia track re-institutes its “Free Fridays” promotion.
Starting this Friday and on every Friday for the rest of meet, all fans will be given free grandstand admission and the price for hot dogs, sodas and beers will be cut to $2. And that won’t be the end of it if Verge, who was just named CEO on March 16, has his way.
“We’ve lost our way and we have to treat our customers better,” said Verge, who prefers to be referred to as “the guy” as opposed to CEO. “It’s going to change. We’ve been telling the customers from start to finish that it’s going to change and that’s what we’re going to work on.”
Fans will get in for free on Friday, but they still will have to pay $5 to park. That’s something Verge said he hopes to have eliminated within the next couple of weeks, if not every day of the racing week, then at least for some of them. Santa Anita’s meet will close on April 22.
“Yeah, they’re still paying five bucks to park, but they’re getting into the grandstand for free,” Verge said. “Like I said, we have to build on it.”
If Verge’s track record of business success is any indicator, Santa Anita is in good hands with the 44-year-old Pacific Palisades resident at the controls.
Verge is best known as being the owner of Westside Rentals, a popular online real estate and rental listings service. The company now is run by his wife Lani. In addition to Westside Rentals, Verge estimated he has an ownership stake in more than a dozen businesses, ranging from hotels to several popular downtown L.A. bars.
But Santa Anita has become Verge’s focus, and it also has gone from being a hangout for Verge during his teen-age years to the biggest challenge of his professional life due to the track’s declining attendance and betting numbers, which are part of an ongoing industry-wide slowdown.
Verge started coming to the Arcadia track in high school with childhood friend Doug O’Neill, now one of the top trainers on the local circuit. Verge’s love of the sport has led him to own several racehorses O’Neill trains. Verge and O’Neill attended St. Monica High School in their hometown of Santa Monica.
Santa Anita’s previous CEO, Greg Avioli, lasted just 11 months on the job before resigning earlier this month, according to a statement issued by Stronach Group, which is the parent company of Santa Anita. Avioli, the former president and CEO of Breeders’ Cup Ltd., will have his resignation go into effect April 1.
Stronach Group was formed after shareholders of MI Developments voted to approve a deal transferring the racetrack and gambling properties of the company to Stronach in exchange for Stronach giving up control of MI Developments.
MI Developments came about after the bankruptcy of Magna Entertainment, which then owned Santa Anita among several racetrack properties nationwide.
Verge declined to comment on what his salary package will be or just how much of a share he was given in Stronach Group, but he did admit it was more than he expected.
His job now is to solve all of Santa Anita’s ailments, which are a microcosm of the industry’s broader struggles as it falls further behind the mainstream sports world and fights to regain its status as one of the top gambling outlets.
“We’re down,” Verge said. “We’re below women’s soccer or men’s soccer and a lot of other sports. We need to get on that front page again.”
Verge, who comes off more like actor Vince Vaughn than a stuffy CEO, just might be “The Guy” to bridge the gap between racing’s aging fan base and a younger generation that has shunned the sport because of the abundance of other sports, entertainment and gambling options at their disposal.
Just how, exactly, he plans to do that is hard to nail down as Verge’s theories tend to be as frenzied as his thoughts. When asked for specific plans, Verge’s ideas ranged from nonspecific ways to improved hospitality to a day at the track in which comedian actor Tim Conway is given a lifetime pass while his son Tim Conway Jr. gets only a one-time, $2 betting voucher.
“I just thought of that today,” Verge said of the Conway promotion.
Beside bringing back free Fridays, another immediate implementation of the Verge era is putting a sign on the parking spot of track announcer Trevor Denman.
“He’s our voice, he’s our star, he’s our guy,” Verge said of Denman. “We don’t have many stars who can talk here. He’s the one.”