Glass half full. Glass half empty. I'm trying to decide.
Santa Anita Park officials reported 44,873 were on hand for the Southern California track's traditional day after Christmas opening on Saturday, the largest opening-day attendance since 46,904 in 1994.
On-track handle was $3,507,248, up slightly from 2014 ($3,431,886) but the fourth lowest opening-day on-track wagering total since 1974.
This year's on-track attendance and total wagering translates to a $78 per capita for everyone who clicked through the turnstiles. A $78 betting per capita might be normal for “college day” at Keeneland, but Southern California tracks are used to two or three times that amount. Even on Del Mar's 2015 opening day, when the track was filled with narcissistic newbies who could care less about betting on horses, the per capita among the 40,304 was $98.
This year's Santa Anita opening-day per capita of $78 marks the continuation of a downward trend. In 2005, when opening day attracted 34,590, on-track handle was $5,880,998, a per capita of $170. Five years later, in 2010, it was down to $112. Last year's per capita for the 40,810 attendees was $84. It's hard to see the glass as half full through those numbers.
To get an idea of how low a $78 per capita is, I searched the Santa Anita Media Guide, which provides thorough statistics on the winter-spring meeting since the track's inaugural season in 1934-35. For the entire 2014-15 winter-spring meeting, on-track per capita wagering was $176 per day – more than double Saturday's opening-day figure. You have to go back to the 1960-61 meeting to find a per capita as low as $78 for a full meeting. Adjusted for inflation, however, that $78 in 1960 would be the equivalent of $619 in 2015 dollars. The 1960 opening-day crowd of 71,012 wagered $3,407,872, a $48 per capita that translates to $385 in today's dollars.
But this is where the glass may be half full.
Assuming that Santa Anita officials didn't fudge their attendance figures (and I say that having had an executive with a different racing organization once tell me “they all lie” when it comes to attendance on big days), a low per capita presents racing with a great opportunity. It's a chance to convert a new customer into a horseplayer – a regular.
Santa Anita pulled out all the stops with opening-day giveaways: a free wall calendar (a tradition that many regulars look forward to), a plush toy for the kids, and $100 gift certificates from the Mathis Brothers Furniture store. There was a “Passion for Fashion” giveaway, encouraging fans to come dressed to the nines, and a high-end Guest Chef Series event in the track's tony Chandelier Room.
In other words, Santa Anita reached out through a savvy sponsorship deal to bring new people out for opening day in the hopes they'll bet a few dollars, have some fun, and come back – again and again.
The best way to assure a fun day at the races is a good customer experience that includes adequate, professional staffing, from the parking lot and admission gates to the betting windows and food and beverage stands.
Another is the simple act of cashing a winning bet. But that is becoming more and more of a challenge as tracks introduce and promote multi-race bets that have the potential for substantial payoffs – but at a much higher risk.
On opening day, for example, nearly one-fourth of Santa Anita's total handle of $17,406,121 went into multiple race wagers (daily doubles, pick 3, 4, 5 and 6 bets). Those bets may, in part, be why we are seeing reduced per capita wagering, and I see two reasons for that. First, these wagers tie up betting dollars over multiple races, unlike win, place, show, exacta, trifecta and superfecta bets, which ride on the outcome of a single race. Secondly, these increasingly difficult bets to hit – and I'll throw trifectas and superfectas into the mix with the multi-race bets – leave too many new fans tapped out and thinking racing is too tough a gamble.
If you don't cash, it's less likely you are going to bet the next race (or bet as much). If a newcomer doesn't cash, there is a reduced chance he or she will be as eager to come back to the track and try it again. New or casual fans should be encouraged to keep it simple: win, place, show and the occasional exacta or daily double.
It's not just newcomers who appear to be betting less. Over the 80-year history of Santa Anita, per capita wagering steadily increased, from decade to decade. Until recently.
On-track per capita wagering peaked at Santa Anita 12 years ago when it reached $267 during the 2002-03 meeting. It fell below $200 for the first time in almost three decades in 2009-10, and it has not climbed above that figure since.
We can blame the people who sit at the track and wager through their ADW accounts – and it's likely a significant number – but the proliferation of high-risk bets has a hand in this decline, too.
By focusing too much on these exotic wagers, racing may be slowly killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
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