When I drove into Santa Anita Park Thursday morning to get a glimpse of the extensive renovations the track has undergone for the autumn meet that begins today, I flashed back nearly 35 years to my first visit to the Great Race Place. It was then, and is now, not only one of the finest racing facilities anywhere, it is one of the most spectacular sports venues in America.
But filling it up with people has been a challenge.
That winter of 1979 when I first set foot inside Santa Anita, daily average attendance exceeded 27,000. Arriving for my inaugural visit with a couple of fellow refugees from the worst winter in Chicago history, I parked in the lot north of the track, paid the admission charge, then walked through a tunnel into the infield. When we emerged into the warmth of the Southern California sunlight, the 360-degree view from the Santa Anita infield nearly took my breath away.
Horse racing was a major league sport in Los Angeles then. Hollywood celebrities populated the turf club and box seat section. Anyone who wanted to make a legal wager on a horse race had to do it on-track.
Just about everything the industry has done since then, purposefully or not, has led to a reduced emphasis on bringing people to the racetrack. Simulcasting, advance-deposit wagering via telephone or computerized device, and horse racing TV networks – all of them make it easier to avoid going to the place that made us racing fans to begin with. Even our wagering menus – littered with multi-race bets – and a reliance on speed figures for handicapping have discouraged the need to be at the track to study the equine athletes in the flesh to try and determine if today is going to be their day.
Is it any wonder attendance figures at all but a handful of race meets and major events have plummeted in the last 25 years?
The transformation of live racing at many tracks has been driven by another factor: multi-use buildings that highlight other forms of gambling – mostly slot machines – at the expense of racing. At many of these tracks, horse racing has become a necessary evil.
There are only a few tracks that have much upside in this new landscape, and two of them – Santa Anita and Belmont Park – are magnificent facilities near enormous population centers where racing was, in the not so distant past, a very big deal.
Both Santa Anita and Belmont Park were built for another era, however, in terms of crowd-size expectations and on-site amenities. Both have been in desperate need of a facelift to have any chance of bringing back the sport's glory days.
Santa Anita moved first, investing upwards of $15 million and making stunning improvements to several areas of the track that now can offer the type of on-site experience 21st century sports fans and gamblers expect. Improved dining, seating and audio-visual technology has given Santa Anita something to market to a population accustomed to upscale sports and entertainment facilities.
I've heard the argument that the only way to grow the sport is to make the gambling side of the business a better bet for the consumer, and I won't argue the fact that lower takeout is going to increase the churn of existing horseplayers. But I've not been convinced that strategy will create new fans on whom the future of horse racing depends.
This isn't an either/or situation. It will take an all-of-the-above solution to ensure a healthy future. Provide a first-class experience that will attract people to racing and encourage them to come back. Offer a wagering menu that gives horseplayers an honest chance to win, then market the unique qualities of that sports/gambling experience that has no parallel.
I got excited when I had the opportunity to see the new-look Santa Anita on Thursday. It was the same feeling I had when I first laid eyes on the place those many years ago. It is one of the last great hopes for this sport.
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