Last summer, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board announced the formation of a Fan Advisory Council to “provide input and advice to the Board on horse racing and wagering matters in New York state” (sic). According to its website, the Council will examine the “total racing experience” and report its findings to the board.
The Council currently comprises four members–chair Patrick Connors, Michael Amo, Allan Carter, and M. Kelly Young (bios here)—and held an open meeting on Saturday at Aqueduct. The two-hour agenda included a presentation by the New York Racing Association, an extended Q&A, and a tour of Aqueduct.
The Council’s mission, according to Connors, is to promote the sport of horse racing in the state and to improve the fan experience, the “big reason,” he said, for Saturday’s meeting. “We want to hear from fans about what can be done to improve their experience at this track and others in the state, both Thoroughbred and harness,” he declared.
The New York Racing Association was well-represented; president Charlie Hayward and COO Ellen McClain sat on the panel, while at least a dozen—one observer put the number at 20–other NYRA employees attended. Also present were representatives from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and several media members; a conservative estimate of the ratio of industry reps to fans is about 5-1.
The NYRA presentation by Hayward and McClain included an overview of the history and mission of the organization; its television programming and social media initiatives; and its plans for its share of the revenue from the Genting casino. Plans for Aqueduct in the near-term include construction of a “21st century sports betting facility” called Longshots and wireless internet access throughout the racing side of the building. The target audience for Longshots, said McClain, is “serious bettors.” Both initiatives are scheduled to be operational when racing returns to Aqueduct next November. Hayward also said that wireless access should be available throughout Saratoga this summer and at Belmont this year.
McClain and Hayward both spoke at length about Racequest, available at home and at on-track terminals and designed to introduce people new to the game to the elements of handicapping. According to Hayward, it helps people conceptualize handicapping and learn what can help to determine the outcome of a race, such as surface preferences, trainer stats, pace, etc. Said McClain, “Its appeal is to new racing fans, to take the mystery out of handicapping, and it’s targeted to the new bettor.”
Connors introduced several topics for consideration during the Q&A: the experience of getting to and from Aqueduct; signage in and around the casino and the track; and the quality of racing at Aqueduct. He also asked those assemebled what might be done to encourage people to come to Aqueduct.
Perhaps due to the dearth of fans, perhaps due to lack of interest in these particular issues, silence generally greeted Connors’ initial questions. People did eventually speak up, though not, perhaps, in response to the topics introduced, and many of the queries revealed confusion about the relationship between NYRA and Genting, with people exhorting NYRA to make Genting accommodate the racing crowd. Loud and clear: the few racing patrons in attendance said that they want to be able to sit in the casino and watch and bet racing, because it’s a nicer place to hang out than the clubhouse is. According to Connors, representatives of Genting were invited to attend but either declined or were unable to.
[If I might editorialize for a moment: there’s nothing in it for Genting to accommodate the horseplayer. In fact, if I were them, and I were already giving a share of my profits to the racing side, I’d be pretty stubborn about installing Wi-Fi and televisions so that the horseplayers could come over and hang out in my space while betting on their mobile devices and not spending money on my product.
The answer, it seems evident, is for NYRA to create spaces on its side of the fence that are pleasant places to hang out. Equestris is great and more affordable than ever, but not everyone wants a big meal at the track. The Manhattan Terrace is a shadow of its former self, and the Man o’War Room is too small to accommodate everyone. Longshots, slated for that space, will help, but if we want people to come to Aqueduct, they need a decent place to sit, handicap, watch races, and have a beer. That space currently doesn’t exist, and it’s why people want to head from the monochromatic Kansas of the clubhouse to the Technicolor Oz of the casino.]
Amo spoke at length about an initiative that he considered “top of the plate,” which is a state-wide I Love New York Racing ad campaign, coordinated with racing and breeding operations around the state that would host farm tours to introduce people to racing; McClain referred to the national NBC contract that will also bring more attention to the sport.
The beauty of racing was discussed as a key element in bringing people to the races; virtually every panelist spoke of using the game’s aesthetics to draw people in, and Hayward and McClain indicated that by the summer of 2013, a public area with a viewing stand will be built at East Avenue end of the Oklahoma track…not that drawing people to Saratoga is quite the skullbuster that drawing people to Aqueduct is.
Perhaps because it’s called the Fan Advisory Council and not the Gambler’s Advisory Council, none of the topics put forth for discussion focused on how to increase handle, so I asked how the proposals might turn the casual fan into a bettor that would support racing. Hayward pointed to Racequest as an initiative that can help the novice bettor get involved; a separate discussion hinged on how to support those new to the track as they navigated betting machines, and on how to ensure that bettors don’t get shut out, which has apparently been a concern at both Aqueduct and the Belmont Café.
Throughout the program, Connors repeatedly urged people to e-mail the Council (scroll down for the address) with concerns, questions, and agenda items for discussion and future meetings.
Hayward and McClain expressed their desire and willingness to work with the Council on initiatives to expand racing’s popularity and improve customers’ experiences as its tracks. It’s impossible to tell whether the Council, yet another state-run organization with its eye on racing, will be able to effect any change for the racing fan, but with no shortage of complaints out there about racing’s product and the track experience, I imagine that the Council will have plenty of agenda items for its next meeting. All they need now are for the fans to show up.
[Full disclosure: I was told last summer that my name had been put forward as a possible member of the Council; my connection with NYRA through its ad on this site and the freelancing writing I do for its stakes programs and BelmontStakes.com eliminated me in short order from consideration.]