The Breeder's Cup Juvenile Fillies race on the turf at Santa Anita… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
The numbers dwindle each year for Santa Anita Park. So how can the horse racing track draw more new customers?
As Santa Anita opens its winter-spring meeting Wednesday, it remains a breathtaking venue in Arcadia set against the San Gabriel Mountains.
But attendance and on-track wagering at Santa Anita have declined for more than 20 years, as they have at many tracks.
The main reasons: competition since the mid-1980s from state lotteries, Indian casinos and off-track betting, that is, people at other facilities and online making "simulcast" or "satellite" bets on Santa Anita's races. The weak economy also worsened matters.
Off-track betting hasn't dropped as sharply, but many in the sport agree that efforts to add off-track gamblers starts with adding visitors to the race course.
The track, opened in 1934, has two key assets: its welcoming ambience and the thrill of live horse racing. But could Santa Anita also make the track and, more important, the wagering process easier to navigate for first-time spectators, especially in this age of instant gratification?
"We know we're an intimidating place" for those unfamiliar with horse race betting," said George Haines, Santa Anita president, who added that even track owner Frank Stronach "thinks it's too complicated."
New fans might not have the patience or interest to learn how to handicap races. But couldn't they still enjoy a day of wagering so easy to grasp that they'd come back?
Given the persistent decline in attendance and betting at Santa Anita, perhaps these customer-service issues are worth exploring:
First timers at the track often are "reticent to ask questions because people don't want to appear not to know what they're doing," said Mike Willman, Santa Anita spokesman.
Santa Anita has a few information booths but perhaps it needs more, and in plain sight, along with more easily identifiable attendants eager to answer questions.
It's an idea some other tracks are embracing. Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, Canada, has a team of "ambassadors," including actors needing outside work, roaming the track helping new patrons learn how to bet, how to read the racing program and otherwise find their way around.
After suffering attendance woes, "We've been on a mission to reinvent ourselves," said Raj Mutti, Hastings general manager.
Or what about the giant video screen in Santa Anita's infield and the TV monitors indoors? They're filled with initials, numbers and dollar amounts for each race. Are there people who can explain what they mean to a newbie, and are those helpers easily spotted when a patron walks in?
There are more self-service machines to handle bets at Santa Anita (about 350) than human tellers (200) on a weekend day but the machines' user friendliness is questionable.
Haines said the machines prompt the user with instructions once a transaction gets started, but there aren't instructions next to the machines to, well, get started.
For instance, the terminals don't take credit cards, only cash or a credit voucher or a winning ticket. Don't have enough cash? Then one has to find one of the track's ATMs or information booths to get cash and return to the machine.
There also are teller windows with machines marked "Voucher." What's the difference between a voucher machine and a self-service betting machine?
Answer: Putting cash into a voucher machine gives you a credit for that amount to bet.
"Then you take your voucher and you go and put it in a [self-service betting] machine," Haines said.
Asked whether he thought this process was confusing, Haines replied, "Yes," but said there are about 20 to 25 attendants throughout the track who provide help with the terminals.
Santa Anita last week announced plans to aggressively use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to market its races, especially to younger potential players.
The track also has various promotional days and discount offers to draw new customers. Normal admission ranges from $5 (general) to $20 (Turf Club). Parking is $4.
Santa Anita also is mulling a plan to encourage more on-site customers by paying higher amounts on winning bets actually placed at the track compared with the same bets placed off-site, Haines said.
"That's in progress, but I can't give you any official information," he said.
Still, it's an intriguing idea — the type of creativity Haines and his team will probably need to finally get more people playing the ponies.