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HORSE RACING

Santa Anita fans are thankful for Free Fridays

Free general-admission promotion, which includes $1 hot dogs and drinks, improves attendance dramatically as people seek cheap entertainment in hard times.

February 13, 2009|Eric Sondheimer

In these days of economic distress and rising unemployment, Santa Anita has put together its sports version of an economic stimulus plan.

It's called Free Fridays, where general admission at the Arcadia racetrack is free, with $1 hot dogs, $1 beer, $1 soda and $1 popcorn.

And it's working. Attendance has jumped dramatically on Fridays when compared to last year, with the betting handle up nearly 30% and attendance up 78%, according to Allen Gutterman, the track's vice president for marketing.

"It's a great way to spend the day in a beautiful setting and feed your family," he said.

There were 9,269 at the track on the first Friday in January, 5,411 on Jan. 9, 6,026 on Jan. 16 and 6,187 on Jan. 30. That's far above the usual 3,000-plus weekday crowds.

Last Friday, on a rainy day, Leonard Mason, an unemployed construction worker from Downey, sat in the grandstand two hours before the first race and expressed appreciation for his day of distraction.

"It's the first time I've been at a track in 20 years," Mason said, "and the free general admission was a nice way of getting out without spending a lot of money and enjoying myself. It's a cheap way of entertaining yourself and having some fun with the tough times. You have to have some relaxation."

Another track patron, Bill Frederiksen from Tujunga, said, "It's like fan appreciation day every Friday."

Four 19-year-old college students from Covina showed up to take advantage of the promotion, and they spent half an hour wandering the grounds searching for the free box seats being offered.

The students represent a badly needed demographic sought by the thoroughbred industry -- young fans.

"When we go to the gates and see people walking around, we're seeing a lot of young people," Gutterman said. "They're asking where to go and how to bet."

While racetracks make most of their money from bettors off site, Gutterman said it's important to everyone involved to have fans in attendance.

"It creates a sense of life," he said. "People want to be where other people are. Everybody feels better, whether it's the horsemen, the employees . . ."

It's the first time since Santa Anita opened in 1934, during the Great Depression, that a weekly free general admission promotion has been offered. And the free Friday admission will stay in place through the end of the meeting on April 19.

Other racetracks across the country have been seeking ways to halt dwindling on-track attendance. Hollywood Park has had its own Friday promotion since the mid-'90s, with a similar $1 food plan, plus a free concert after the races, but no free admission.

Los Angeles has been known as a city where fans respond to sports promotions. The Dodgers have led the way with their souvenir giveaways designed by the late marketing whiz Danny Goodman, from free baseballs to free beach towels. Adding a day of price breaks in the concession area, though, attracts attention.

Normally, before anyone has even placed a bet at Santa Anita, it costs $17.50 to get in when including the $5 admission fee, $5 parking, $2.50 program and $5 Daily Racing Form. And 16-ounce beers are priced at $5.75, 16-ounce soft drinks are $3, hot dogs are $3.75 and popcorn $3.50.

All the Friday concession versions are smaller, but their $1 prices can't be beat.

"Once we get busy, it looks like a hot dog eating contest is going on," said concession manager Joyce Tyler. "Everybody is lined up against the counter with a beer or soda, and the hot dogs are being chugged down."

Even Takeru Kobayashi, the hot dog eating champion, might enjoy a day at the races on a Friday at Santa Anita.

"If you know how I can reach him, I'll pay for the hot dogs," Gutterman said.

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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