Give me a sunny day, a good vantage point and a clear idea of the rules, and I could happily watch a Paint-Drying Competition. Toss in a compelling story line upon which to build a rooting interest and I’ll be the last one to leave the bleachers.
At last weekend’s Hampton Classic I had the first two in hand and was working hard on the others as I watched the Davenport Incorporated Amateur/Owner Jumper Classic, the first of the day’s two Grand Prix Ring events. Unfortunately, the tools of my event-watching trade (event documentation, intelligible P.A. system, informative scoreboard, knowledgeable fellow spectators) were in short supply, leaving me to my own devices to figure out how this whole horse-jumping scoring thing works.
At the risk of reducing equestrian experts into spasms of laughter, here’s what I came up with.
The Hampton Classic was once described to me as “the Super Bowl of equestrian events”. Hmmm. Intriguing. Unable to control the Pavlovian effect that the words “Super Bowl” have on a sports fan, I felt immediately compelled to travel to the outer reaches of Long Island, New York to take in Hampton Classic XXXV. Hey, I was in the neighborhood.
Mind you, this was the Hamptons on Labor Day Weekend, so I knew it wouldn’t be a piece of cake to get there. And as a resident of Los Angeles, I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of fine traffic. But as I sat on Route 27 on a sun-splashed Saturday morning I was humbled.
This was clearly a new paradigm in traffic jams, rivaled only by the recent 9-day back-up in China. The next time you hear somebody say facetiously, “I could have walked there faster”, feel free to reference me as a hands-on authority on the matter. I had plenty of time to do the math.
If there was such a thing as “Event Production 101” the first rule of thumb taught would probably be “Make people aware of the existence of your event”.
Signs help with that.
You cannot possibly over-do on this. I guarantee that everyone who has ever driven I-95 through the Carolinas knows of the existence of South of The Border, a cheesier-than-Velveeta amusement park. The 4,379 billboards stretched for miles before the exit for the park make sure of that. Of course it’s not worth making the effort to actually go there…but I did once. And only because the ubiquitous signage captured my attention and piqued my curiosity.
I’m not saying that the organizers of the Hampton Classic should pursue that exact strategy, but as I approached Bridgehampton on the one road that you must travel to get there, there was not a single sign telling me how far I had to go, or even that I was getting close. Or that I had passed the turn onto Snake Hollow Road, for that matter.
But when I was pretty certain that I had traveled through Bridgehampton entirely, I stopped at a bowling alley and asked for directions. “Oh, that’s right off this main road. Turn around and drive until you see Bridgehampton National Bank. Then take the next right.” I did just that, and sure enough, in less than a half mile I came to the event’s entrance. Which is where I encountered the very first sign that bore the words “Hampton Classic”.
Things picked up from there, when I learned that admission was free once I paid my $10 parking fee. No ticket, no hand stamp, no nothing. Clearly they were not concerned about people parking in the plaza just down the road and wandering into the event for free. Don’t think I didn’t consider it.
The thing about no admission fee is that there’s also no front “gate” where one could pick up a program or other additional event information. As I searched that out, I wandered fairly aimlessly into the Boutique Gardens – an expo unlike anything that I’d ever seen at a sports event.
Dozens upon dozens of tents stocked with artwork, apparel, jewelry and pricey home décor items were laid out around a common that was almost as big as a football field. It was basically a huge high-end sidewalk sale. Without the sidewalk. Or the sale prices. While I could have easily scheduled a test drive for a Jaguar or a Land Rover – or completely redecorated my house for that matter – trying to find a schedule of events, or any information on the actual competition proved fruitless.
My mission to find documentation on the event was based on the hope that it would include some basic description of what I would be seeing. As a novice horse-jumping fan, I wanted to come up to speed quickly enough to be able to share pithy, insightful remarks as I took in the competition with my fellow equestrian buffs. Unfortunately though, I had to go in pithy-less.
I made my way over to the Grand Prix Ring, and found to my delight that the grandstand seating was exceptional, especially for a temporary structure. There were actual ballpark-type fold-down seats in the middle sections of the grandstand, and leg room was plentiful. I was amazed that this luxury had been bestowed upon the peasants like me who were not VIP tent occupants. In fact, I had a much better view of the action than did the folks in the tents. Granted, their set-up accommodated socializing a bit more – but I was here more for ponies than people.
As I surveyed the course in front of me, I couldn’t help but think how much it reminded me of an over-sized miniature golf course. There were two dozen or so hurdles laid out over a grass surface, most of which had different themes and motifs: A gazebo, a lighthouse, a couple of miniature castles, a handful of wishing wells, and my favorite – a mock dock, complete with mock seagulls.
I learned later that many of these hurdles were movable, allowing the event organizers to completely reconfigure the course in between competitions – presumably to accommodate a variety of ridership skill levels.
Two things became evident shortly after the start of the first Grand Prix Ring event, the Davenport Incorporated Amateur/Owner Jumper Classic. One – this was one of those higher ridership skill level events. And two – figuring out how the scoring of this thing works was going to present a challenge.
Normally in these situations, I simply eavesdrop on surrounding conversations in order to identify the right mix of knowledge and approachability, and then ask some kind soul for a quick rules clinic. That strategy has never failed. Until today.
Aside from the fact that there weren’t too many people who chose to sit in my section (even though I had a prime viewing location), nobody that did so fit the profile. If they knew what was going on, they weren’t talking about it. As far as my inquiring ears could hear, people were either dead silent or talking to each other about totally unrelated topics. This was not exactly a passionate crowd.
I was left to cobble together some semblance of the rules based on the snippets of P.A. announcements that I could understand, the rudimentary scoreboard display, and some basic competitive horse-sense. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.
To be continued…
“Track officials say the secret to attracting fans is to make it a day for fun. ‘You’ve got to make believe you’re in the entertainment business,’ Chief Executive Joe Harper said. ‘What better spot than Del Mar. There’s the Pacific Ocean, palm trees are blowing in the breeze. You have a lot of crazy things going on – hat contests, concerts. It’s become a fun place to be.’”
Ahem…say, ahh Joe? There are some horses running around as well. Some people seem to like that sort of thing.
Listen, I know where Mr. Harper is coming from. Having worked in the sports business for some time, it has become ingrained in me that “Sports” is a sub-category of “Entertainment”. But from what I saw in my weekend visit to Del Mar, Sports there has become a sub-category of “Cocktail Party”, which up until now has occupied an entirely different branch of the Entertainment family tree.
But it seems to be working for them, for while the entire thoroughbred racing business is reeling badly, Del Mar drew over 45,000 people to its Opening Day. And as I navigated my way around the historic venue I had to think they were close to matching that number on this first Saturday of the racing season.
The crowd trended markedly young for a race track. Evidently this Junior Varsity rendition of Opening Day is a must-do for the 25 to 35 year-old demographic, for they came in droves. And while I don’t know the intimate financial details of the clothing business, I now know definitively that only a moron could manage NOT to make a killing selling shoes and hats to the women of San Diego County.
For there they were en masse, looking stunning in shoes bearing heels that no doubt brought a fear of heights into play, and floppy hats that you could lose a small child in. Small women were now tall women. And tall women…let’s just say that if a random tribe of Amazon warriors were passing through and decided to attack, I liked our chances.
As chronicled in my previous post, there are still some kinks to be worked out of the early-season system though. For example, there were clearly some typographical errors made when the price list signs were created for the concession stands. In what was probably an honest mistake, somebody had confused “Margarita” with “16-Room Mansion Overlooking The Pacific” and posted the cost of the latter for the price of the former. I’m sure they’ll clear that up in time.
For time is one thing that I found to be in great supply at Del Mar.
Following the completion of each race, the scoreboard displays a post time for the start of the next one. Always more than 30 minutes, even that long of a lag time was often merely a suggestion. For example, the amount of time that elapsed between the end of the fourth race and the start of the fifth was almost 45 minutes. This was waymore time than was needed for everyone to decide on a sure winner and put their money down. I chose to put the time to good use, completing a doctoral dissertation between the third and seventh races.
Maybe it’s just me, but that amount of planned down time, combined with 4,126 concession stands smells an awful lot like “demand creation” to me. After placing your bet and staring into space for what seems like an eternity, a $9 draft beer gradually starts to make some semblance of economic sense.
Having completed the trimming of the full beard I grew between races – and with time still on my hands – I got to talking with a friendly track employee in his first season with the venue. During the conversation I asked innocuously about the disjointed ticketing practices and the piling on of fees and other costs.
His responses were obviously well-coached – he hadn’t just drunk the Del Mar Kool-Aid, he was doing a backstroke in it. He pointed out the cost advantages of buying season passes or similar multi-session packages. He happily volunteered that instead of paying to park, patrons could take advantage of the free shuttle from the nearby train station. He explained that…well, he was completely stuck for an answer about the food and beverage gouging.
One of my favorite ways to pass the time was heading over to the paddock where I found it relatively easy to secure a spot along the rail. This was very cool. While I’ve never had an insider’s perspective on the world of thoroughbred horses, I’ve read enough to gain an understanding of the passion for the sport that is shared among those that train, groom and ride the horses. Being in the paddock and watching the handlers and jockeys prepare for a race offered a small glimpse of that tight-knit society. And then there are the horses, which at close range are simply awe-inspiring animals.
I used this profound experience to educate myself on the proper handicapping of a race, in order to prepare for the day’s featured race – the 37th running of the Eddie Read Stakes. And after much observation and consideration, I placed my bet on Crowded House to win. My rock solid logic was that Crowded House is the name of a band from Australia that I like. Hey, some people’s reasoning isn’t even that good.
I staked out a good vantage point for the finish – or at least as good as a member of the unwashed masses can get – and waited the obligatory eon for the race to begin.
Because so much of the race takes place beyond the view of the grandstand, every horse track has a large screen that provides a close-up video feed of the entire race. At Del Mar, there are actually three visual experiences to choose from, displayed side by side.
One is the live video just mentioned. The second is a graphic recreation of the race, the benefit of which is that all of the visual “noise” of the live feed is taken out and you get a much sharper picture of the relative positions of the horses throughout the race. The third option is also a real-time graphic representation, but it simply displays the numbers of the horses in rectangular boxes that bob along the screen. Horse-racing for dummies. Naturally I chose this option to follow horse #1 – Crowded House.
This is all you need to know about my skills as a gambler: There were only seven horses in the race, and for the first half of the race, my bobbing red #1 box didn’t even appear on the screen. Then, after spending the majority of the race meandering aimlessly around the track, Crowded House made a spirited run down the home stretch to finish fourth – just out of the money, or in racing parlance, the top of the list of “Also Ran’s”.
Coming that close to a spot on the Win, Place & Show board might typically be enough of a motivation to take a shot at the next race…and the next one…and the next one. But for me, my day was done after that 8th race. I still had to walk the half-mile to go get my car out of hock and give my lending officer a ride home.
Thoroughbred racing was once called “The Sport of Kings”. I don’t know who those kings were, but if they were here today to see what their sport has devolved into, there would be a lot of subjects banished from the kingdom.
Much has been written of late about the demise of thoroughbred racing, as economic conditions and changing consumer tastes have sent horse tracks across the country into a prolonged slump. Even venerable Hollywood Park was described by the L.A. Times recently as having “small crowds and eerie silence” throughout a recent spring/summer season which could very well be its last.
In the early 1900’s the following axiom about horse racing gained popularity: “In England it is a sport, in France an entertainment, and in America a business”. In case you were wondering, that wasn’t meant as a compliment to America. And now a century later, the more successful horse racing venues have merged France’s and America’s perspectives – and pretty much nosed England’s out of the picture.
For based on what I experienced yesterday at Del Mar Race Track, thoroughbred racing can barely be considered a sport. It’s more of an open-air night club with hay.
Built in 1937 by a partnership that included actors Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Oliver Hardy, Del Mar gained almost instant national notoriety the following year when co-founder Charles Howard put his horse Sea Biscuit up against Ligaroti in a $25,000 winner-take-all match race. It was the first horse race ever broadcast on NBC Radio, and literally overnight the entire country knew of this star-studded track in California “where the turf meets the surf”.
The Del Mar racing season runs for six weeks each year, beginning in mid-July. Its Opening Day is reported to be the second most attended social event in California each year (behind the Academy Awards). “Tickets” per se, don’t really exist for the event, unless you are extremely well-connected, filthy rich, a celebrity, or all of the above. I’m guessing that even Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In The World has to work his rolodex hard to get in.
The Junior Varsity Opening Day is the first Saturday of the season. The atmosphere is similar and the mode of dress is the same (well at least for the women), but the average bank account balance among attendees is far smaller. For better or worse, this was the day that I headed down the coast to take in a day of racing, capped by the 37th Eddie Read Stakes.
For a facility that prides itself on its tradition of a patron-friendly environment, the Del Mar that I arrived at is about the least user-friendly sports venue I’ve ever to – especially with regard to the admission process. At the front gate the posted admission was $6. I queued up, paid my fee, and was given a program. I headed into the grandstand building without a ticket or any other proof of payment. This however, did not strike me as unusual.
See, this trip to the horse track was not my first rodeo – a statement which officially sets a new (low) standard for mixed metaphors. I’ve been to horse tracks sporadically over the years, including Del Mar, several years ago when I lived in San Diego. In all that time I encountered one basic “seating plan”. You could pay for a reserved seat in an exclusive section, which provided a superior view, a private bar or restaurant and betting windows with virtually no lines.
Or, you could pay your entry fee and then sit or stand anywhere outside of the reserved section that you could find a spot. This however, was not the case at Del Mar, at least on this day. In fact, there were lots of different seating options, and much like a baseball stadium you could choose your own trade-off of cost vs. vantage point.
Except they don’t tell you that at the gate, nor is it posted anywhere. Hours later, when conversing with a track employee, he clued me in that once you get inside the gate, there is a separate ticket window tucked around the corner where you could purchase a ticket to upgrade your view. Oh.
Apparently I was not the only one who hadn’t been brought up to speed on this scenario, for after I had been shooed out of two different sections that I thought were open seating, I noticed that the poor ushers on duty were stuck with making a day out of doing the same to others. The ironic thing is that only those of us who were horse track veterans of a sort experienced this – “Hey, good to see you again, glad to have you back. Now get out of this section that you’ve previously known to offer open-seating.”
I wondered where they had herded the old guard railbirds who are actual ongoing, multi-visit patrons of the track. Easily identified by cigar-chomping, rumpled clothing and furrowed brow as they pored through handicapping sheets, I saw little evidence of their presence. I wondered if they were just sitting this one out – much like veterans of the party scene who stay home on New Year’s Eve.
Then again, maybe they’d been priced out.
For this was the most noticeable thing about my first visit to a horse track in some time. All previous experiences fell under what I know may now be a defunct business model – which is to make it ridiculously easy for people to get in the building and start betting. At Del Mar…$8 to park a half mile away from the front (and only) gate…$6 admission to merely enter the building…a still undisclosed extra fee for an actual seat…pre-made Del Mar Margaritas for the low, low price of $13 (and up to $17.50 for a premium tequila)…a Heineken draft for $8.75…a sausage with the works for $9.
Getting the picture? These are major-league baseball stadium prices, and in many respects pushing even NFL stadium prices. But here’s the thing: after paying over $50 for a seat, a bite to eat and a cocktail, you still need to dig deep to fund the betting that is ostensibly the source of the day’s entertainment!
As I was pondering this, post time for the next race arrived. And when it did, everything previously familiar about a horse track kicked into gear. The jolt of adrenalin in the crowd when the horses left the gates. The rising hopes as they made their way around the track. The unabashed begging and cajoling of “your” horse coming down the stretch. The sheer joy of the winners and the muttering of disgust of the losers. A classic tale of loss and redemption – all in a tidy sub-two minute package.
Maybe there’s still some life left in the sport after all.
To be continued…
When last we left this intrepid Sports Fan, I had weasled into the bleachers in the far, far corner of the International Polo Club Palm Beach grounds. This is where a $20 General Admission ticket will get you if you are attending the U.S. Open Polo Championships. I was firmly planted in The G.A., where the lack of amenities is made up for by the lack of a decent sight line. I was reminded of Caddies Field Day at the country club at which I grew up caddying. We had use of the facilities, but there were…limitations. (more…)
Question: What is it about the presence of horses that compels women to wear hats?
Only Plausible Answer: They’ve seen Pretty Woman way too many times.
Full disclosure: I admit that my own exposure to polo at any level is minimal – and of course by “minimal” I mean non-existent. But as an American I am entitled to four stereotypes per year, and thus the trip to the 106th U.S. Open Polo Championships was a chance to test one of them out. And in contrast to my recent initial encounter with synchronized swimming, which served to dispel my preconceived notions about that sport, attending the Polo Championships sadly served to confirm previously uninformed impressions. (more…)