Too many racetracks are empty, worn out and dreary, which you may think doesn't matter. With the exception of a few tracks and a few big days no one goes to the races anymore. Why would you when you can go to a nearby simulcasting location or, better yet, watch and wager at home over your computer? Why would you when the day in and day out on-track experience at most places is horrible. If you're going to bet anyway, why would a racetrack even care if you show up for the live show?
Because enjoyable on-track experiences are a must if this sport is to ever grow.
The experience of racing begins at the track. No one gets hooked on racing by going to an OTB or watching a simulcast.
”-- Tom Ludt, Stronach Group Sr. VP of Racing and Gaming
Ask yourself how you became a racing fan. For me, it was when my father started taking me to the track in the seventies, back then a magical place filled with fans and super charged with atmosphere. I couldn't go enough. I am sure your story is the same. Someone -- a friend, an uncle, a parent -- introduced you to the racetrack and you thought it was just about the coolest place you had ever seen. Take someone to most racetracks today and they'll want to leave before the second race.
At Santa Anita they get that, and that's why they've sunk $15 million into the old track, which opens Friday. They are trying to create a facility that will make the fan experience so special that people, whether new to the sport or regular horseplayers, will keep coming back.
"The experience of racing begins at the track," said Tom Ludt, Senior VP of Racing and Gaming for the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. "No one gets hooked on racing by going to an OTB or watching a simulcast. The sport has been struggling when it comes to attendance and we believe one of the reasons for that is the experience people have at the racetrack. The initiative we have taken here is all about the on-track experience, about the food, the seats, cleanliness, the experience a fan has. It's just like what stadiums and other venues in other sports have done, realizing they had to change."
Several areas of the track have been modernized and improved. A special room reserved for high rollers has been built. Santa Anita has also invested big dollars in how its races are shown in some areas of the building. Certain areas will feature giant "tile technology" TV screens with surround sound audio.
"We have audio visual technology that is off the charts," Ludt said. "When the horses break out of gate and those speakers get booming, you'll feel like you're in a theater atmosphere."
The irony is that Santa Anita, pre-renovation, was already one of the world's most beautiful racetracks. But the management team there realized that if they were going to get people to come back to the racetrack they had to make the place even better.
"What happened was that over the last 30 years nothing changed," Ludt said. "Racetracks became faded, worn down and old. We have taken a broad step to create an atmosphere where, the general person who doesn't normally go to the races, as well as the casual fan, will have the type of experience where when they leave they will want to come back. They will say that was so much fun I can't wait to go back."
Even with the renovations, Santa Anita, like so many tracks, will still struggle with the problem of being way too big for its own good. Tracks like Santa Anita and Belmont were built in an era when the buildings needed to accommodate huge crowds. With those days long gone, there can be an emptiness to these tracks that can ruin a fan's experience all by itself. There's just something very depressing about a huge building with no one in it.
"That's actually the most significant issue we face," Ludt said. "I'm not saying we'll never get back to the days when we regularly got 50,000, but the reality is you get much smaller crowds and how do you make it work on a day to day basis? We're trying to attack it one area at a time. But we still have a lot space here that looks old and tired. We have 1 million square feet under the roof here. We will get there. There's going to be a phase 1, 2, 3. You have to come up with a unique, constructive way to attack this problem and you have to do it in stages. We want to put you in rooms that are fun and exciting, even if there aren't 50,000 people here. There are ways of creating an atmosphere that is a lot better than big and empty."
Santa Anita management is gambling $15 million that live racing isn't dead after all. For the good of the sport, let's all hope they're right.