By Ray Paulick
Craig Fravel, who joined the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club as executive vice president in 1990, was named president and general manager of the San Diego-area racetrack earlier this year. Formerly legal counsel to DMTC, Fravel is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and practiced in Washington, D.C., and San Diego prior to entering the racing world.
Fravel has been involved in a number of industry organizations, including the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Thoroughbred Racing Associations of the United States, Equibase, Racing and Medication Testing Consortium, as well as numerous associations in California. He has weathered criticism for Del Mar's support of synthetic racetracks and manages to keep an optimistic outlook as California racing and breeding industry has struggled in recent years. That optimism may come from the fact Del Mar is one of the only bright spots in that industry.
During the Paulick Report Forum, Fravel declined to answer any questions about negotiations to host the Oak Tree Racing Association in 2011 and beyond because there were ongoing negotiations. He also sidestepped specific comments about proposed legislation to increase the takeout on exotic wagers.
So far during the 2010 meeting, attendance is up and handle is down. What's your explanation?
Handle is correspondingly down to the number of races we've run. Actually it's a positive, not a negative. Hopefully, if those numbers hold up and we keep getting people to enter their horses, we'll have a good meeting.
Has ADW failed to deliver on the promise of increasing handle by making it so much easier and convenient to place a bet?
I think the answer to that question is kind of like people asking if your advertising is worth the money you spend. You don't know where you'd be without it. My personal view is that both ADW and television distribution are extraordinarily important to the industry. Have we done it as well as we could with it? No, but overall it's been a positive.
How much has the uncertainty—the eventual development of Hollywood Park, the bankruptcy of Magna Entertainment, the owner of Santa Anita, and the overall tone of negativity involving the California Horse Racing Board, synthetic tracks, etc—hurt the image of racing and its business?
I think in many situations the industry is its own worst enemy. We tear down better than we build up. Clearly the uncertainties surrounding the future of the two Los Angeles tracks (Santa Anita Park and Hollywood Park) is major. Combine that with expanded alternative gaming elsewhere, and that's a major challenge. I'm a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. Somehow or another we'll come through this and come out of the end of the tunnel better.
Is there any hope of getting some help in the way of VLTs, slots or even Instant Racing from the legislature?
I don't see anything on the horizon on the alternative gaming side.
What's the 2.0 version of racing surfaces in California? Is it the tracks currently in place, conventional dirt with improved bases and drainage A new and improved Polytrack of some sort?
I think as far as synthetics go, all of them will improve as we learn more and get better at the maintenance. We at Del Mar are still believers in synthetics. As far as dirt goes, there certainly is a group of people who believe that dirt is the way it ought to be, and if someone puts one in and it proves to be the best and the safest, we'd be fools not to look at it.
We had experience with dirt out here and if you recall people said you can't go to California because of the tracks out there are unsafe and they kill horses. If there is a new and improved dirt, I'm anxious to see it.
You cut back from six days a week to five in 2009. How long do you think Del Mar can offer five days of live racing, given the fact the foal crop is down dramatically?
I don't have that crystal ball. There are going to be a lot of changes in the racing calendar over the next few years. Ultimately we'll be able to adapt the calendar to the inventory (of horses). If McDonalds had too many stores they'd close some. We will adapt to the changes of the foal crop—it's a national issue and not just in California. There will be changes in the way racing is conducted, and I don't that is altogether a bad thing. Going from six days to five from a fan experience has been a good thing. Some tracks going five days to four has helped. Sometimes we ask people to do the same thing over and over and it's a little too much.
Del Mar has long been mentioned as a potential home for the Breeders' Cup. What do you need to do to handle the event?
The primary thing we need to do is expand the turf course, and it's not simply a matter of making it wider to handle the number of starters. The real problem is a sub-surface design that contemplated a summer meet where rain is a non-factor. More than a quarter inch of rain means you have to take the races off the turf, and even though it doesn't normally rain here around the time of the Breeders' Cup, we couldn't take any chances. The turf course needs to be resurfaced and a drainage system put in and widened as well.
Other than that, it's just spending time on logistics like temporary seating. The facility itself doesn't need a lot of modifications.
From a competitive standpoint, how do you think Del Mar's product stands up nationally in terms of racing quality and value to horseplayers, and I'm thinking of takeout here?
The quality of racing over the last 10 years has declined. We're still holding our own. In terms of wagering activity, I know Monmouth has had a great meet, but I doubt there has been a day when they've out-handled us with three or more races a day.
We still have a lot of strength in California with our racing product, and at the end of the day, racing has to stand on its own somehow. Twenty years from now, places that are fully sustained by slot machines will have figured out they don't need racing. We need to be able to deliver the fan experience through the racing product, and that's what we do here.
In terms of takeout we are significantly lower than most jurisdictions. NYRA's three-horse wagers are 26%, compared with 20.68% for Del Mar. That 20.68% is on superfectas, pick threes, pick fours and pick sixes. Monmouth's takeout is 25% on those three-horse bets. We still have plenty of room to be price competitive.
Copyright © 2010, Blenheim Publishing, LLC
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