At Hastings, The Player Is King

If you haven't yet discovered Hastings Racecourse, and chances are you haven't, this is the year that needs to change. When the track, which is located in Vancouver, opens April 16 it will offer some of the very best betting values found anywhere in North America. The takeout for win, place, show, the Pick Four and Pick Five will be just 15 percent.

The lower takeouts are the result of a management philosophy that runs counter to the way so many other racetracks think. At Hasting, says 29-year-old Regional General Manager Raj Mutti, "everything we are doing is catered to the horseplayer."

The good news for horseplayers actually began with an effort from the British Columbia government, which put something together called the British Columbia Horse Racing Industry Management Committee, which was created to "help revitalize and restore financial strength to the province's horse racing industry." The committee decided to allocate additional funds to thoroughbred racing in British Columbia, which resulted in big purse increases. At the upcoming meet, overnight purses will be up by 19 percent and stakes purses will rise by 23 percent.

That was good news for Hastings and its horsemen, but did little for the fan. Mutti and his team decided to do something about that.

"We have had a lot of positives here of late and since we had the purse increases we wanted to do something for the players, too," Mutti said. "The players and the horse owners are the two most important parts of the business and without either one of them you do not have a business."

On the heels of Santa Anita raising its takeout, something that has clearly alienated many customers, Hastings went in the opposite direction. Mutti decided to go the extra mile for the fan. Not only did they lower the takeout, they put in Wi-Fi throughout the grandstand, upgraded their graphics package for their video presentations and created a Pick Five with a carryover component. The Pick Four takeout went from 22.3 percent to 15, a decrease of 36 percent.

"We are trying to reengage the horseplayer that we might have lost, not only locally but throughout the marketplace," he said.

Whether it's with on-track or simulcast bettors, Mutti wants people to know that Hastings is doing something different and trying to offer the customer a better value than he or she could get most anywhere else. He knows that a small track like Hastings can easily get lost among the glut of simulcasting signals. This year, he hopes to make his track stand out from the crowd.

"Our ideal goal is a 10 percent increase in handle at the meet," he said. "We are hopeful for 10, but are realistically thinking we will have, maybe, a 5 percent bump. We are going to do a lot of work promoting and advertising the takeout decrease to the players, so players are more aware of the Hastings product. It's not a product that has been promoted much throughout North America over the last few years so we're trying to get it back on the horseplayer's radar screen. We want them to know it is a good product with good-sized fields and good value."

If Mutti doesn't sound like the typical racetrack executive it's because he isn't. A graduate of the Racetrack Industry Program at the University of Arizona, he worked at Hastings as a busboy before college. After his college graduation, he came back to Vancouver and worked his way up. By the time he was 26, he was general manager and, recently, he was promoted to regional general manager, which means he oversees the racing not just at Hastings but also at its sister track, Fraser Downs, which is a harness facility.

Apparently, no one told him that slots tracks are supposed to care a lot more about slots than they do racing.

"Our three most senior managers are all passionate and love racing," he said. "Our assistant GM, who is in charge of the slots operation, absolutely loves racing. We are racing guys who operate a racetrack and a casino so we have a philosophy where you can't have one without the other. We have an operation that embraces both. We try to connect the slots operation with the racetracks operation. That's how we run all our promotions. It is a philosophy whereby you can't do one without the other. We try to do as much for the racing patrons as we do for the slots patrons."

The meet lasts for 71 racing days and ends Oct. 2. Betting on Hastings presents some challenges. It's a bullring and the top riders (Richard Hamel, Fernando Perez) and trainers (Troy Taylor, Craig MacPherson) are probably unfamiliar to most bettors. But this is a track that is trying to do the right thing for the customer and is offering some of the lowest takeouts in the sport. It needs to be on your radar screen.

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.