Ramblings of a weekend handicapper's bid to qualify annually for the $3 million National Horseplayer Championship in Las Vegas. Flamed out in 2015, 2016 and 2019 NHCs...and looking to qualify in Feb. 2020, still with an eye toward playable long-shots.
Monday, May 26, 2014
"There's Live Racing, Here, Today?"
I kid you not.
That was one of the first questions I fielded on Saturday in my first endeavor as a volunteer race "ambassador" at Monmouth Park.
Brick By Brick
Recognizing that festival days at Monmouth draw outsize crowds but fail to translate to bigger wagering pools or consumption of the real product -- thoroughbred racing and parimutuel wagering -- the marketing team put out a call on Facebook this winter, looking for passionate folks (I bit) to help increase the racing customer base.
Building new racing fans, I hope
So, I went to Monmouth about a month ago to be briefed by marketing manager Brian Skirka and two representatives from America's Best Racing, Dan Tordjman (of Danonymous Racing fame) and Victoria Garafalo, who were on hand to reinforce the notion that even if we as ambassadors come away enticing even a single person to come back to the track, then "job well done."
I kept this in mind throughout my day, which amounted to around four-and-a-half hours of mingling with customers hanging around the food trucks and spending lots of times with three groups in particular.
Raul & Co.
The crowds were a little slow to build after gates opened at 11:30 a.m., so after a quick briefing from Mr. Skirka, I talked strategy with my four colleagues about manning our booth and roaming the grounds in search of our marks.
I hit the pavement, getting a feel for the expanded food truck layout (a wise move by track management) and introducing myself to random groups, explaining that I and the other ambassadors were on hand to assist with any questions about racing, Monmouth Park itself of anything to improve their visiting experience.
Shortly after the first race ended, I approached a party of 5-6 noshing and sipping around one of the lounge tables and otherwise looking bored, and without so much as a track program in reach.
After introducing myself to the group, a man from Staten Island named Raul asked me whether Monmouth Park had live racing.
"The first race just ended about 5 minutes ago," I responded, probably looking somewhat vexed.
"No, seriously, they have live horses here?," questioned Raul.
"You're pulling my leg, aren't you?!," I said.
So, without hesitation and to prove my case, I told Raul that I would take his group inside the winner's circle to watch the next race and was taken up on the offer.
Equipped by track management with a few $2 betting vouchers, I asked Raul's son and wife as we cut from the food-truck area and through the grandstand toward the track what numbers they liked and wagered a $1 exacta box for them (2-4 did not hit, unfortunately), then ushered them trackside to watch Race 2 and subsequent winner's photo from inside the winner's circle.
From there, we ambled over to the paddock to watch horses for the next race get saddled and mounted.
Within the course of discussion, I learned that New York-bred Raul's parents had taken him as a kid numerous times to Aqueduct and Belmont back in the day, but Saturday was his first trip to Monmouth, largely to check out the food trucks.
Raul also said he and his wife went to Aqueduct often, but for the casino.
James and the Birthday Girls
Still getting over the shock of Raul's question about live racing, I shared the story (and a few hearty laughs) with my colleagues, and moments later was approached by "James," also on hand for the food trucks and a first-timer to Monmouth.
James asked where he could buy a program.
Hmm, here I am expecting beforehand to be asked by visitors to pick winners or the finer aspects of handicapping and, instead, get some real softball questions.
James took up my offer to walk him over to the program booth, and along the way I explained that I am a passionate horse racing fan on hand to help, hopefully, future racing customers embrace the game.
Upon learning that James also was on hand to celebrate the birthday of one of his three lovely lady friends with a day at the trucks, I offered the same tour provided Raul.
This time, we started at the paddock, getting a bird's-eye view inside the walking ring of horses being saddled and trainers giving their jockeys some last-minute instructions before heading to the track.
To my amazement, I was then bombarded with questions about reading the program, condition of the race and horses, jockey-trainer significance and so forth.
Hey, these folks were getting into it, and I did my best to educate them in the time we had on our walk from the paddock, and a quick stop at the automatic teller, to the winner's circle.
Perhaps I am gullible, but as with Raul's group, I got the sense that James & Co. (replete with a handful of free passes) had an unforgettable experience and will be coming back to Monmouth Park soon.
The Blue Hen
Anyone who knows me can attest that I am notoriously bad with names on first encounter (apologies in advance to anyone cited here who stumbles upon this post...share your info in comments below).
On the golf course, I write down the names of my counterparts on the scorecard, along with a notable article of clothing; i.e. Tiger, red Nike shirt.
I forgot to do this on Saturday, however, caught up in the moment.
So, for my third and final lengthy encounter on the afternoon, I can honestly say I turned two seemingly apprehensive "sorry, I bought at the office" types into prospective Monmouth Park customers.
Mrs. NJ Horseplayer... another famous Delaware grad
A twenty-something University of Delaware grad and her boyfriend were, like many others, on hand for the food trucks, but came toward the tent to grab a brochure, upon which I lassoed them into a tour.
My modus operandi was no different, as I reassured the clearly skeptical boyfriend that I had no motive or pitch about buying a timeshare or something absurd, and that I am merely a racing fan interested in cultivating a fresh, young fan base so that my sport passion does not go extinct in 20 years as feared.
Reassured, the couple joined me on the tour and equally asked as many questions as James & Co.
"So which one do you think is going to win?," asked Blue Hen.
"I would probably lean toward the 2," I said, noting that in a maiden special weight field of very inexperienced males, the Kelly Breen-trained Encryption made the most sense, since he had probably the top local trainer and one decent run in his debut, whereby horses often do much better on their second try.
But, for her, watching the winner cross the wire first and then cashing a free voucher elicited the kind of reaction typically reserved for hitting Powerball.
The elation was priceless.
I enjoyed Saturday's experience and cannot wait to get back in the saddle again (scheduled for Sunday, June 8 -- Irish Festival), but come away with mixed feelings.
First and foremost, I have a far greater appreciation for what Monmouth's marketing department is up against, because they do a great job with limited resources creating events, namely this weekend's Food Truck Festival, where Sunday's attendance of 23,278 more than doubled Saturday's 10,248.
In all seriousness, I felt wiped after spending what amounted to the duration of 6 races on my feet with a mere 3 groups of people, opting for quality time over quantity in the spirit of Danonymous' advice.
The task of hoofing around the track for an afternoon marketing the product is rewarding, but tiring; and, as I sense marketing professionals would attest, offers no guarantee that Raul, James or Blue Hen ever return.
Running into Mr. Skirka on my way out around 6 p.m., he lamented that he had been at it since 6:30 in the morning, so I could only imagine his exhaustion...and probably with a few more hours to put in at the office yet.
Big Attendance Not Equal To Bigger Betting
Perhaps the threat of rain kept more people away on Saturday, but the reality is that 20,000-plus in attendance on Sunday is a substantial figure these days at Monmouth Park and more than four times the last Sunday's attendance.
Problem is, looking at Daily Racing Form's stats, the average visitor wagered a meager $35.23 on an enticing, deep betting card and back on the turf this Sunday after Saturday's scratch-laden program, down nearly 40% week over week.
Meanwhile, Saturday's on-track pool averaged $50.89 per person, while the previous Saturday (Preakness Day), $60.62 was bet per person (8,476 on-track attendance) on Monmouth's racing (13% of the total pool into Monmouth), indicating a 16% week-over-week decline.
(On-track betting on Monmouth on Sunday comprised 22% of all wagers, up from 17% on Saturday and less than 10% last Sunday; I cannot glean anything from those data points, but wanted to share in the event they prove valuable to anyone.)
Let's assume that half of the 15,000-person rise in attendance are paying adults and the other 50% are children or got free passes for Food Truck Festival. At a $4 admission, that's $30,000 in attendance fees, plus parking and whatever they spend on track unrelated to food trucks, i.e., racing programs.
Nothing to scoff at, but not really the core of Monmouth Park's business, which is racing product.
Ideas Once Visitors Get In The Door
The ambassador program is a nascent great step in the right direction, but could be expanded in any of a number of ways to foster a more-valuable racing experience.
Assuming the five of us this Saturday spent quality time with 3-5 groups apiece, and generously 100 visitors...it's a start, but a lot of missed opportunity as well.
The biggest detriment to events like Food Truck Day is that all of the events take place behind the grandstand, where no one is ever really in direct view of the live racing product.
People entering the main gate take a sharp left toward the trucks, various other tables (including NJ Lottery, which seemed to do livelier business than the track's tellers) and the live music venue. Based on the so-so headcount track-side, I'm guessing at least half of the big crowd never watched a single race.
Trackside Food Trucks
First order of business is to snake the 30 or so food trucks from the current location through (at the very least) the back of the picnic area and perhaps onto the track's apron.
The emphasis has to be on converting Food Truck Festival consumers into horse racing consumers, whether this requires temporary reconfiguration of utilities or of the ubiquitous picnic tables; or if the on-track concessions take a hit for a weekend, so be it.
I'm sure a lot of hard work goes into preparing for any festival at Monmouth Park, and that not translating into wagers perhaps builds the Monmouth Park brand, but as a festival ground, not a racetrack.
Expanding the physical footprint of the trucks this year was a huge improvement over last year, but steps should be taken next season to put the racing product squarely in visitors' faces. Maybe give anyone who buys X dollars worth of food a $2 betting voucher in a cross promotion with the track.
I would never profess to be anything near a Brad Thomas as a handicapper, but I know enough to get by, and my four colleagues on Saturday, including @StormKittyKat, @RutgersKev and @MonmouthParkKid, could serve as personal liaisons to special interest groups, including parties that rent picnic space, companies hosting outings or others looking for more of a value-added experience.
Monmouth Park's group sales could offer our services for an hour or two, giving these customers (who, mind you, are already trackside) personal liaisons, complete with tours of the paddock, a view from the winner's circle, advice on reading the track program, or what have you.
In all likelihood, someone on hand in a big picnic group setting for burgers, beers and a few friendly parimutuel wagers is more likely to return for another afternoon of racing and betting than some foodie or wine blogger who will never return and has never physically viewed the main product -- racing.
An Early Success
Several other ideas come to mind, but I have droned on long enough.
The bottom line, as a racing fan, is that volunteering time to press some flesh and share my interest in thoroughbred racing with prospective new fans is extremely fun and rewarding.
At the same time, I find myself learning a lot by talking concepts through with complete strangers, much as I would seated at a table with fellow handicappers in a tournament and talking through race scenarios.
Certainly, I aim to represent Monmouth Park well, even as a volunteer, which I would argue enhances my credibility among the unsuspecting recipients of my tours and diatribes; my time has no strings attached.
I am pretty confident that Raul, James and Blue Hen can attest to this, and look forward to spending more time hopefully cultivating a racing fan base as the Monmouth Park 2014 meeting progresses.