At Delta Downs, racing matters

Horse racing isn't important.

Plenty of people were quick to tell Steve Kuypers that some five years ago when he went to work at Delta Downs, which is owned by Boyd Gaming. That wasn't exactly a surprise. Kuypers is a veteran of the gaming industry and the gaming industry too often seems to think that the best way to handle horse racing is to neglect it. The real money, they told him, is in slot machines.

It's not just horse racing. When Boyd Gaming decides to do anything they give 100 percent.

-- Steve Kuypers, V.P. and GM of Delta Downs

The only people who weren't telling him that were his bosses at Boyd Gaming, a Las Vegas-based company that owns 17 gaming properties. Delta Downs, in little Vinton, Louisiana, is its only racetrack. Going against conventional wisdom in their industry, they thought horse racing at Delta Downs deserved a chance.

"It's not just horse racing," said Kuypers, Delta's vice president and general manager. "When Boyd Gaming decides to do anything they give 100 percent. If they own a racetrack they're going to give 100 percent to horse racing. That's just the company's philosophy. A lot of places believe that as long as you have racing you can make all the serious money on slots. We don't do that. They had an opportunity to buy a racetrack thinking they could get slots. But they also said if we are going to get into racing we better learn about racing and do things right."

Boyd bought Delta in the early nineties after racetrack slot machines were made legal in Louisiana. It originally focused much of its attention on a large capital improvement project and getting the slots operation and a hotel off the ground. When things began to settle in with the casino side of the operation, Boyd began to take a look at what it could do to boost its racing business.

"When I came on board here we had a very good reputation, but it wasn't until the last two years that we just took off," Kuypers said. "It came from [Boyd Gaming Executive VP and COO] Paul Chakmak. He said, 'I think we're ready to explode here with horse racing. Let's now start to make a name for ourselves in racing.'"

Much of Delta's efforts were put into its signature race, the Delta Jackpot for 2-year-olds. The purse was increased to $1 million in 2010 and Delta upped the pot to $500,000 for the accompanying filly race, the Delta Princess.

Plenty of slots tracks have rich stakes races, but most let them take place in a vacuum. Not Delta. An intense marketing effort was put in place to promote Jackpot Day and it resulted in record handle in 2010, numbers that were broken once again a year later. The Jackpot has gone a long way toward putting Delta Downs on the map.

"We are getting the word out more about Delta Downs than ever," Kuypers said. "That has a lot to do with the Jackpot and all the work that is being done prior to the Jackpot to promote it. Delta Downs is seen everywhere. We are getting the word out about Delta Downs more than ever. People used to tell us they didn't even realize there was such a track. Not anymore."

Kuypers said new and improved associations with a few ADWs has also helped business as has a new relationship with TVG, which now highlights Delta racing during its evening broadcasts.

When Delta's thoroughbred meet concluded earlier this month it ended with impressive gains in handle. The handle for this year's Jackpot card was up 16.1 percent and Delta showed a 5.62 percent increase in handle for the entire meet. Delta's managers were also discovering that the more people they could attract to the racetrack for racing the more money they would make in the slots room.

We think about what we have to do to take things to the next level, that could mean enlarging the track.

-- Steve Kuypers, V.P. and GM of Delta Downs

When you try, when you market racing and put on a good product, goods things happen. Delta Downs is now the No. 1 nighttime thoroughbred simulcast signal in the country. Ten years ago, that would have seemed impossible. Delta is a bullring, had a reputation of being a minor league track and is hundreds of miles from a major city.

Kuypers said they're not done. While most of the marketing efforts have been focused on Jackpot Day, Kuypers said that will change when the 2012-2013 thoroughbred meet kicks off this fall.

"We're planning on advertising around the clock and not just for our $1 million race," he said. "We [are] Boyd Gaming, Delta Downs, we have a $1 million race, but look at what we do year-round."

What Delta Downs really needs is a one-mile racetrack. A lot of bettors still don't want to bet bullring tracks, especially when they are so narrow that no more than 10 horses can start in a race.

"We think about what we have to do to take things to the next level," Kuypers said. "That could mean enlarging the track. Boyd doesn't think short term; they are long-term strategic thinkers. If we realize we can take things to the next level with our racing they won't be afraid to spend the money to do so."

Probably somebody is going to tell Kuypers and the Boyd team that spending the money to expand the track makes no economic sense. They'll repeat what they said five or six years ago, that the only thing that really matters at any "racino" is slot machines. Steve Kuypers, fortunately, knows better.

Full Disclosure: A company I also work for was paid to broadcast the Delta Jackpot on Sirius XM radio in both 2010 and 2011.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.