Keith Brackpool has been a busy man since resigning as chairman of the California Horse Racing Board in January to take a position as chairman of West Coast operations for the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields in California, Portland Meadows in Oregon, Gulfstream Park in Florida and Laurel Park and Pimlico in Maryland. The company also owns Xpressbet, AmTote International and is co-owner with Churchill Downs Inc. of HRTV.
Brackpool, who also took an equity stake in the Stronach Group and serves on the executive board, has strengthened Santa Anita's management team, naming Tom Ludt, the former president of Vinery, to an executive position overseeing developmental areas, and has brought the track's former marketing executive, Nate Newby, back into the fold.
He's also overseen a major capital improvement project at Santa Anita that will be unveiled to the public on Friday, opening day of the autumn meet that is highlighted with the 30th running of the Breeders' Cup championships on Nov. 1-2.
What will be different visually at Santa Anita Park when fans come out for the fall meeting that opens on Friday?
Fans will see wonderful renovations to many of the spaces including the Clubhouse Mezzanine, the revered Chandelier Room and the newly associated Sports Book lounge. They will also see an expanded outdoor Turf Terrace for dining. The Clubhouse Mezzanine is now a mini food emporium, offering multiple selections of great food, wine, and beers. While the bones of the Santa Anita building have always been spectacular, we would like to believe that these renovations have merged the glory of the original design with amenities now necessary and suitable for the current decade.
What's new from a technology standpoint?
Without a doubt the biggest change and improvement is that of the new Audio Visual display. We have invested a significant amount in modern technology in order to best show the magnificence of our great sport. The Clubhouse Mezzanine, amongst other areas, now features giant tile technology screens and associated surround sound together with a vast array of accompanying HD screens throughout the area. It is really quite spectacular.
Why have you decided to dedicate a room to high rollers?
We have patrons who enjoy the privacy of their own space when concentrating on serious handicapping. The room is by invitation only. We named it The Eddie Logan Suite, in honor of our legendary employee who shined shoes here from the day the track opened in 1934 until his passing at the age of 94. A wonderful man.
With all of the trends showing a shift from on-track business to ADW wagering, does it make sense to make this investment? What is the goal?
Without a doubt, it not only makes sense but also is imperative. All sports now face the same issue in today's world of mobile technology. Quite simply the experience of attending a live event has to be superior to that of watching from the comfort of one's home. We feel that racing has not done nearly enough in this area. It is absolutely vital to have an engaged live audience if we are to continue to attract both new fans and new owners to our sport. Also, of course, on track handle is critical to purse size. We want fans and owners alike to once again long for their next day at the track.
Breeders' Cup is just a month away. What's going to be new this year?
Well I won't steal their thunder, but suffice to say we are excited to showcase our new improvements to all those attending the World Championships and we hope and trust that this will be the best experience anyone has had so far.
Let's project ahead to the traditional meeting that begins Dec. 26. How are you preparing to meet the challenge of a six-month-long meeting?
Well, again, we are focused on opening day of the autumn meet, so let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. I will tell you though that we plan many innovations for the traditional meet. These will include amongst others, additions to our team, changes and improvements to the racing program and schedule, the wagering options, and many more issues. We are much looking forward to rolling those out in the coming months.
This will be new territory with racing in the San Gabriel Valley into May and June, when it can be quite hot. Is there any consideration to add lights or go with a late first post?
A twilight post is very much a possibility on certain days and obviously we recognize that the second half of that meet will have to be different in many respects to the earlier part.
Are you satisfied with the apparent resolution of the stabling issue, and what can you tell horsemen about short- and long-term plans for the stable area at Santa Anita?
Like all the participants in the process we liked certain parts of the resolution, yet had to suffer a little pain with other parts. It's probably indicative of a good deal with nobody entirely pleased with the outcome! To think there would have been a magical wand to solve the problem, though, would be naive. We are very pleased that San Luis Rey Downs is back as a first-class training center and very much look forward to the opening of that in February of next year. At Santa Anita, we have recently completed an extensive set of repairs and improvements to the backside. We have also increased the manpower here as Santa Anita, as a training facility, will be operating at an increased capacity from now on.
As far as the long term, we are now in the planning stage of determining the best location within the property for new barns. We will keep horsemen closely in touch with our progress.
You chaired the California Horse Racing Board when Senate Bill 1072 passed, raising purses through an increase in takeout on multiple horse and multiple race bets – with all the additional revenue going to purses. Now that you're sitting in a different chair, what is your opinion of that legislation?
California is one of the only major racing states that doesn't benefit from other forms of gaming revenue. This had put the state in a very difficult position as far as purse levels went. The legislation allowed for an increase in purses so that California could remain competitive with the other major racing states. We have much work to continue the development and expansion of our great sport here but SB 1072 was a very important tool in leveling the playing field.
Comparatively speaking California tracks have a low takeout on win, place and show wagers, but other bets – exactas, for instance – are higher than in New York and Kentucky, to mention two states. Where are you now on the takeout issue?
Yes, we remain the lowest of comparative states with win, place and show. On the multiple horse bets we are slightly higher on some bets and slightly lower on others. Our aim must be to reduce takeout wherever possible while, at the same time, protecting our competitive purse levels. This is a crucial issue for all involved in racing, none more so than those of us without the benefit of other gaming revenue to assist. We will be proposing some modifications to both our wagering menu and associated takeout rates for the forthcoming traditional meet. We are very much hoping that we will see the handle pattern increase with these modified rates which will then allow us to continue on such a path.
I know that it's impossible to reverse a 20-year trend in a short time, but what positive signs would you like to see for Santa Anita a year from now, when the Breeders' Cup returns for a third consecutive year?
For far too long racing has used excuse after excuse for its troubles. What we hope to see as a result of all of the improvements and changes described above is a combination of increased attendance and associated handle begetting more of the same, and everybody starting once again to smile at our good fortune to be involved in such a wonderful sport. I for one am very optimistic about the future. Thank you.
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