“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…