"We all are aware that if we do the same as last year, we'll fail," Jim Thibert, CEO of The Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium said last week in a press conference.
Actually he could have picked out any year since Fort Erie Race Track first opened the doors in 1895.
Fort Erie season begins on May 1st, and already, they are getting in the batter's box behind in the count as horse racing handle is off over 10% this year in North America.
Handle at Woodbine is off over 15% so far this year, and Santa Anita just announced their handle was down 11% during their latest meet.
Field size might have something to do with it. Also, tracks with higher signal distribution fees like Woodbine and Santa Anita, and Tracknet tracks, have been getting whacked a bit more because price sensitive players have been shifting their action to where they can get the best net takeout after rebate. If the latter is true, that could be a plus for Fort Erie.
I was looking back at my notes pertaining to improving the betting handle at Fort Erie. When I first moved to Fort Erie back in 2001, I co owned quite a few horses. I had major interest in keeping the then high purses high, and approached Eddie Lynn, Nordic's GM at that time, with a list of close to 25 things they could do to attract more bettors.
The lack of interest I received was mind numbing, but then again, it was hard to blame him. Nordic was rolling in profits from the casino back then, and horse racing was and still is to them, a necessary evil.
I even mentioned competition from Buffalo which will most likely cause slots profits to go down, to which Lynn laughed, saying something like Buffalo can't do anything right, that they are inept across the border.
I saw I was getting nowhere, so after around 8 items on the list, I shook his hand and left his office.
Fast forward to today, and the days of giving away $175,000 a day in purses and running 120 plus days a year are long gone.
Of the items on my list, only one was realized. Last year, Fort Erie changed post times to 1:45, though that isn't exactly what I would have suggested.
So here is a revised list of what I believe Fort Erie needs to do to not only survive but to prosper for many years to come:
1. LOWER THE TRACK TAKEOUT: Fort Erie cannot realistically expect to survive unless they lower their takeout rates. Fort Erie ranks 67th out of 69 tracks when it comes to takeout rate. Did you know that 10 of the 14 tracks that have the lowest takeout rates, do not have alternative forms of gambling? Tracks with slots should have the lowest takeout rates in order to compete with the slots side.
If Joe Gambler loses $200 at slots (meaning he bet over $2000 on average), the track gets $20, and the horsemen get $20. If the same gambler loses $200 at the track on average (meaning he bet around $1000 on average), the track gets over $90, as does the horsemen.
Here are the rates Fort Erie should use (and I'm being reasonable and conservative): WPS 16.5%, DD EX 20.5% (just like Woodbine), Triactors, supers, pick 4's 24-25% tops. And it wouldn't hurt to drop the Pick 3 to around 16%. This bet generally doesn't attract large pools at Fort Erie anyway, and at this rate, it will attract many players from across Canada and the USA to play it, and once someone handicaps a Pick 3, making picks leads to the temptation to bet win or other exotics. Oh, and start the Pick 3 in the first race, not the second. I can see Woodbine throwing a hissy fit if the Pick 3's takeout was lowered to 16% though, but this isn't about Woodbine, it is about saving Fort Erie.
Lowering the takeout will attract price sensitive players from other jurisdictions, and will only increase Fort Erie's bottom line, as the bulk of their money comes from off track wagers where profits aren't related to takeout but only volume.
On track though, could be temporarily affected, however, studies and empirical evidence has shown that by lowering takeout, horseplayers last longer, and eventually will churn back the extra money won. The more they go home with, the more likely they are to return quicker, and the more likely they are to become regulars. This does not happen overnight, but it is something almost every track in North America has refused to experiment with. In today's environment it is a must, especially for a track like Fort Erie which is hanging on by a nose hair. It is the best way by far to create future regulars.
In Fort Erie's case, you can't continue to have a track takeout of 26.2% on doubles and exactors, and actually publicly state you are trying to improve the bottom line.
2. Introduce the Fort Erie Five, a jackpot bet that is identical to the Beulah Fortune Pick 6. The takeout rate isn't that important, so 25% would be OK. It has to be a $1 minimum in order to attract US bettors, who can't bet fractional amounts from US tracks or ADWs on Canadian tracks. Give out 50% of the new money (after takeout) bet each day to those who have the most winners in the Pick 5, and have the other 50% go towards a jackpot that is only won if a lone winning ticket picks all five winners.
This may only build up significantly once a year, but as it does, handle will go through the roof for the days leading up to the jackpot being hit.
Most importantly is when this pool gets up over $100,000, it will start attracting lottery and slots players to make their way to the racetrack and hang out on the horsey smelling side of the grandstand for at least a little while.
If Fort Erie wants to get aggressive, they can seed it or guarantee a $5,000 payoff, which probably will wind up costing them next to nothing if anything.
3. Re-introduce the Breakfast Club. I used to really enjoy it when I was a kid spending my summer holidays at the Fort. Canadian bacon on a bun for a buck, while watching horses workout in the morning. It might mean Daryl Wells Jr. having to wake up early on a Sunday morning, but sacrifices need to be made.
Eddie Lynn told me that they stopped it, because they were attracting too many "mooches" looking for a cheap breakfast. Again, times have changed, and the main purpose of this would be to try to entice some of the slot players to come out for some fresh air, and they might find a jockey or trainer being interviewed to be somewhat educational and maybe even fascinating.
Luring them out with a free quick pick on today's Pick 4 or a voucher to buy an early daily double might work wonders.
Again, tracks make more from gamblers who bet on the horses over slots dollar for dollar.
4. Change post time on Sundays to 12:15 or 12:30. Sunday handles suck. Fort Erie should compete for the first dollars bet across North America on that day. It might get more people handicapping Fort Erie. Starting at 1:45 or even 1:00 puts them in competition with too many A tracks, and Woodbine too. Plus if Fort Erie does the Breakfast Club at 9-10PM, it makes it easier for the slot player to use their double voucher. Never race more than 8 races on a Sunday. Run extra races on Monday or Tuesday always.
5. Pay more purse money the larger the field size. Field size is one of the biggest handle drivers there is. Fort Erie averaged 8.24 horses per race last year, which ranks them 33 out of 69 tracks.
In order to maximize field size and handle, I strongly believe that 6 horse fields for the same class should not run for the same purse that a 12 horse field runs for.
Horsemen won't like this idea, because their ideal field size is 1, but since we are talking about keeping their plant open, they might bend.
Fort Erie has a budget to give out around $100,000, which gives them an average purse of around $12,000. Obviously, $4,000 claimer should run for lower than $14,000 claimers, but it is also key to remember that it costs exactly the same to train a 4 claimer as it does an allowance horse. So lets look at the average race for Fort Erie, a $7500 claimer for non winners of 3. The average purse for that race should be $12,000. However, in order to reward races that have higher non coupled entrants, it would pay to change the minimum purse to $9,000 for this race if it attracts only 6 or less starters. For each additional starter, $1,000 should be added to the purse. This means an 8 horse race will run for an $11,000 purse, and a 12 horse race, for example, will run for a $15,000 purse.
If this does in fact lead to bigger fields, handle will rise causing purses to start to rise, and the base can be increased, as a win win situation is created.
6. Forget the idea that quality horses will come to Fort Erie, or are even needed to be attracted. First off, when you have just $12,000 a race to hand out, you can't reasonably believe quality will show up. Secondly, historically, small field races that give out bigger purses at Fort Erie produce very low handle.
There is really no reason to have allowance or even maiden allowance races at Fort Erie. If a horse is perceived to be worth more than $16,000, let the local connections of that horse prove it at Woodbine, and hopefully they can enhance their year with the bigger purses Woodbine has to offer, and conversely, why entice a superior Woodbine horse to come to Fort Erie to steal purse money in a short field of horses next to nobody bets? Fort Erie is a niche track, that is now getting extra government benefits. It should do everything it can to give purse money out to local horsemen whenever possible, plus betting comes from bigger fields not horses running for higher tags or no tag at all (the exception being, obviously, The Prince of Wales).
6a). I'm not sure if they are doing this or not, but when putting a race card together, the Racing Secretary should give preference to field size over purse size, with the only exception being Stake Races. Also, carryovers should be treated equally with races in the book. If they have attracted a bigger field than the race in the book, it gets preference.
7. The second biggest asset Fort Erie has right now, outside of the existing horseplayer, is the existing horseman. Keeping owners and trainers in the game is critical. Most owners don't expect to win, but the closer they come to winning, the more likely they are to stick around, and maybe even increase their stable. The small owner is likely to bring in partners, and they in turn, bring family members to watch their horses and hopefully get their picture taken in the winner's circle. This can create more potential horseplayers over time.
It is key not to keep the minimum purses for cheap claimers to be as high as possible, even if it is at the sacrifice of limiting the higher end races in purse money. Most tracks get this already, and Fort Erie has been improving in this area.
8. Write Canadian bred or Ontario bred claiming races. Again, it is important these races fill for the sake of handle, so this needs to be implemented on a trial basis. These races can boost participation from a few sources. Many Fort Erie horsemen have locally bred horses who are forced to compete with US breds. This is generally a disadvantage. By having Ontario bred claiming races, it entices local horsemen to buy them. It will also draw some Woodbine horses who could be running at Fort Erie at bargain (for local Fort Erie horsemen) prices, which could eventually increase the horse population at Fort Erie as these horse change hands.
It also gets the interest of more breeders from across Ontario to watch races at Fort Erie, where the horse they bred has a better chance to win. Breeders have families and friends, and they might bet a few bucks on the race as well.
9. Call every local business in the Great Niagara region and Buffalo and offer a $12 all you can eat buffet for groups of 6 or more. I don't know if they do this, but it should be done.
10. Outsource the food stands in the main grandstand to affordable fast food places that Fort Erie is lacking, like a KFC, Arby's, Swiss Chalet/Harveys, and/or Burger King. Put a Swiss Chalet, and my wife might even make a few bets. Worse case scenario is that people come for pick up only....at least they realize what the inside of a track looks like, and may gamble in the future.
The parking lot is huge. A Ponderosa like steak house would go over nicely there.
11. I can't mention number 11 on this blog, as it will enrage Woodbine, and I know quite a few Woodbine execs read my blog. But it is huge. It actually should be number 2 on this list.
12. Interview the trainer of one of the favorites right after the post parade for the live crowd and possibly the simulcast crowd. Maybe interview the winning jockey and/or trainer after the race. Pre race interviews though, are better to generate wagers.
13. Elissa Blowe has enough experience when it comes to noticing if a horse is either acting up, sweaty, or looking great in the post parade. It might be a good idea to have her Tweet an observation or two each race to the at home bettor. Follow Fort Erie on Twitter here.
14. Hire me as a consultant. I don't care about the money that much, though a little compensation would be expected. I would love to be part of this turnaround. I can only give Fort Erie around 20 hours a week of live time anyway. But it would benefit Fort Erie tremendously as I would come in handy in supervising and implementing my suggestions, and more importantly refining them if needed, and coming up with more as time goes on.
I have a few other suggestions but they are minor right now.