As the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s 70th race meet heads to the finish line, attendance figures and the betting handle are outdistancing last year’s numbers.
At the end of the first four weeks of the race meet Aug. 16, with 20 of 37 days on the books, on-track attendance was 11.8 percent ahead of the same period last year, while the on-track handle , amount of money wagered , was up 12.8 percent.
The average daily gate count stood at 18,607, up from 16,645 last year, and the on-track handle averaged $2.4 million a day versus $2.1 million at the end of four weeks last year. Altogether, on-track and off-track wagering were up 0.2 percent , a photo finish.
“This is a two-part business,” said Joe Harper, president and general manager of the Thoroughbred Club, which operates the track. “Our main thrust is getting people on this racetrack. They’re more profitable to us when they’re betting on the track, and you do this with good marketing and putting on a good show.”
The Thoroughbred Club eliminated Monday racing, when the track turnout was traditionally sluggish , except for Labor Day , and cut back to a five-day-a-week schedule. (The track traditionally has been dark on Tuesdays.)
It also added one race each on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, all of which were well-received and helped to rein in operating costs.
“The Monday races were taking money out of purses from other days,” said spokesman Mac McBride. Through the first 20 days of racing, the track had paid horse owners $8.9 million in cash prizes or purses.
Shortage Of Thoroughbreds
Yet one of the main reasons Mondays went dark is because of the shortage of Thoroughbred horses in the state.
It sounds ironic, particularly since this year’s meet has gotten off to such a good start. Owning, training and running racehorses is an expensive venture, and the recession has apparently lightened the wallets of those who used to invest in the sport of kings.
“Now everybody’s pulling in their belts, and that’s flowed into Thoroughbred racing,” McBride said.
Part of the reason for the increases in the track’s gate count and betting handle during the first part of the season is a new promotion called “Free and Easy Wednesdays,” when admission, seats and programs are free and drinks and hot dogs go for half-price.
According to Chief Financial Officer Mike Ernst, the Thoroughbred Club evaluates and tries to improve the lineup of promotions every year, from micro-brew festivals and chili cook-offs to concerts.
“When we first started the Friday concert promotion, young kids showed up at the end of a race program just to see the concerts,” Ernst said. “Now we look at the money wagered per race and see that the last three races on a Friday are similar to what we have on a weekend. Over the years the concertgoers have come earlier and earlier.”
Some Saturdays have been added to the concert schedule, and a recent performance by the Flaming Lips drew a crowd of 28,000.
What’s more, the Del Mar track, which concludes its 2009 schedule Sept. 9, draws more females than any other in the country. “Where else in California can they come dressed up and wearing hats?” Ernst said. “It’s an event. If you look at our advertising, you don’t see a bunch of horses.”
No indeed. You see a Marilyn Monroe look-alike sauntering into the grandstand wearing a clinging dress. And a hat.
Horse racing’s heyday dates back to the 1950s, but the sport enjoyed a resurgence in overall wagering during the past decade due to simulcasting. Simulcast horse racing refers to watching broadcasts, mostly live, but sometimes delayed, from tracks throughout the world.
Many tracks don’t report attendance figures, but analysts agree that the numbers continue to decline across the country.
Horse racing is no longer the only legal game in town. Casinos have cut into tracks’ business. Although some tracks, where states allow it, have brought in slot machines, creating what’s called “racinos.”
Voters rejected a racino proposal in California and the matter’s pretty much been laid to rest. Yet, Del Mar obviously isn’t suffering. Maybe that explains why it’s known as the Camelot of racetracks.
Hats off to that.