Excuse me if you’ve heard this question before, but can the California horse racing industry become any more messed up than it already is?
Well, when dealing with organizations like the California Horse Racing Board and Thoroughbred Owners of California, never say never.
Why in heck, when a sport is struggling to attract new fans while losing many of its old, loyal customers, does the CHRB and TOC back an increase in the takeout, a move that never works and served only to infuriate the horseplayers to a point where they are currently staging a boycott of California racing?
“They’re going directly opposite of any sane businessman — raising the price when they can’t sell something,” said Roger Way, California representative for the Horseplayers Association of North America. “It’s like you have a pair of Levis you can’t sell, well, let’s double the price and surely somebody will buy it. It’s silly. It’s stupid.”
It’s also not working. Have you checked the latest betting numbers out at Santa Anita through the first couple weeks of the 2010-11 meet? Total handle is down about 17 percent and those larger fields that were supposed to be fueled by bigger purses funded by the larger takeout have failed to surface yet.
Why is it that every single move these guys make is aimed more at helping the owners and not the horseplayers, who are the lifeblood of what is now a dying sport because of failed leadership?
Why? Because as Way accurately points out, there are too many conflicts of interest in California racing.
“If you look at our CHRB, we have an archaic rule that allows for a majority of the people on the CHRB to have a financial interest in the game,” said Way, who’s been betting on races since 1949 and shows a keener insight into the sport than the majority of the people running it today. “There are four of them currently who are owners of horses, and that’s the majority. So they are automatically, by law, members of the TOC. That’s a conflict of interest, pure and simple.
“We tried to do away with that about three years ago and a (bill) was ready to pass, it had favorable votes everywhere, and suddenly it was killed. The horseman’s lobby got to somebody. It was going to correct the situation.
“I think there are very few states, if any, that allow a majority on the board with a financial interest. It may be an unconscious financial interest, but they’re letting down, they’re not supporting the mission of protecting the player.”
There’s little doubt that neither the CHRB nor the TOC want a united horseplayers group. It’s not in their best interests, and Lord knows we don’t want to pass something in this sport that’s not going to solely benefit the owners.
Hey, I’m not saying the owners don’t risk a lot of money and I’m not blind to the fact it costs a lot of dough to keep a horse in training, but last time I checked it took two to tango, and while the sport would not exist without owners, it also wouldn’t be around without the bettors, either.
“People don’t go to the races to watch horses run around in a circle. They go to bet,” Way said.
How about trying to raise purses the old-fashioned way instead of gouging the gamblers? How about putting forth an improved product, which in turn might lure more fans to the track?
How about being a little more customer friendly? How about a low-takeout early pick four or some novel betting ideas that would really grab the racing fan’s attention?
How about a bet where you can wager on which jockey is going to win the most races on the card that day? Hey, it wouldn’t hurt.
Aase Headley, wife of trainer Bruce Headley, offered a suggestion: How about, for the convenience of the fan, the tracks come up with vouchers or gift cards that can be purchased at the gate and are good to use for betting, concessions or at the gift shop. Hey, they might make a nice stocking stuffer at Christmas or a nice birthday present for that racing fan you know.
Portland Meadows recently passed out $15 vouchers to patrons who showed up and presented a ticket stub from the previous night’s Portland Trailblazers game.
Southland race tracks can try the same promotion for Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Ducks, Angels, Dodgers, UCLA, Galaxy, Chivas and Sparks fans.
At this point, ANYTHING would be worth a shot. So what if it doesn’t work. Wouldn’t cost as much as that $10 million failed experiment that Santa Anita recently ripped out and replaced with traditional dirt.
Aase Headley also had another idea worth considering — instead of those T-shirt, sweatshirt, cap or beach blanket giveaways, give the fans five-dollar vouchers that must be redeemed at the track.
The CHRB’s idea of customer friendliness? Insulting the longtime fans who’ve shown far more loyalty to this game than vice versa.
I was flabbergasted when apprised of this quote by CHRB vice chairman David Israel at a racing symposium in Arizona last month: “The average age of our on-track customer is deceased, and the average age of our satellite customer is decomposed.”
Wonderful, Mr. Israel. So just keep catering to that same younger set that the industry has been bending over backwards to attract for years now.
Oh yeah, by the way, how’s that working out for you?
“We could solve these problems if we could just get face to face and convince those dummies they’re not the only people to be concerned with,” Way said. “This game is like a triangle. You have the state’s interest, and then you have the people who put on the show’s interest — the race tracks and the horsemen — and then you have the customers. And the customers are just having the door slammed in their face, and then (management) wonders where the customers go. I mean, how stupid can people be?
“We need to expand the fan base, and you can’t expand the fan base by raising the price, treating customers the way they are and making decisions with a conflict of interest.”
It’s time the CHRB and TOC sat down with representatives of HANA, and I don’t mean teleconferences or symbolic meetings that just pay lip service, but for a full-fledged, face-to-face meeting. Heck, make it a weekend at a resort and hash out these problems and try to make the game good again.
Heaven knows, HANA representatives are willing and able, and it’s a sure bet that CHRB and TOC officials should be chomping at the bit to hear some new ideas from a group that has far too long been deprived a voice in the industry.
The ball’s been in the CHRB’s and TOC’s court long enough. Time to let somebody else offer some solutions that might help before it’s too late.