What Happens When the Casino Takes Priority Over the Horseplayer
Today I ran my Canterbury Park MVP card through the document shredding machine. As I write this article, I am on day 12 of boycotting my home track- the place where I was introduced to horse racing some eight or nine years ago. While the Canterbury Park track personnel were still freshly celebrating their new partnership with Mystic Lake Casino, I was busy evaluating new tracks where I could shift my bankroll and my horse racing interest. After nearly a decade of regularly attending live racing, wagering on the product, and being Canterbury Park’s biggest supporter in the social media circles, I am now distancing myself from the racetrack. It only took a few simply phone calls and some e-mails to realize that Canterbury had no interest in the loyal horseplayer or the diehard horse racing fan. With the new partnership promising larger purses, all their efforts were now solely dedicated to pleasing the tribal personnel that operated the casino down the street in Shakopee, Minnesota. And when the industry starts to pay more attention to the casino personnel than to the horseplayer, the end may be near.
The recipe for alienating a horseplayer is quite simple. You can go with the proven method of California racing and have outrageously high takeouts and make little effort to lower them. Or you can go with the newly implemented plan of Canterbury Park where you quickly sell your soul to the local casino and forget about the horseplayer who has wagered on your product for years. The incident took place on Friday July 6. I made my routine phone call to reserve a table in the clubhouse area to attend live racing on a variety of dates remaining this summer. Following the new partnership, Canterbury began promoting Saturday July 28 as the biggest racing day in Canterbury’s history. On that day, Canterbury was offering the largest purse ever offered by the track. When I tried to reserve my usual table, I would have been fine hearing that the event was already sold out and no seating was available. Instead, I am told that no one can reserve clubhouse seating on that day as all seating is being held for tribal personnel and sponsors. It was as if Canterbury thought they had immediately become Churchill Downs Incorporated and had a number of Yum! Brands executives to please. In one short phone call and the e-mails that followed, Canterbury Park sent a clear message that my dollars wagered on their product and my enthusiastic support of their brand in the social media world, did not matter. In one of the poorest business decisions ever, Canterbury effectively designed a plan to keep major horseplayers from wagering on their product on July 28th so that the tribal personnel and sponsors could simply attend. Yes, I am aware that this was part of a multi-million dollar deal to increase purses and thus improve the product. Many will argue that it was just business. But maybe Canterbury should look at the 2012 HANA track ratings for their own track rating (38th) and for New Mexico tracks. While casino money has given New Mexico horse racing a boost in purses, most of their tracks are firmly placed in the bottom of HANA’s track ratings. In fact, there are plenty of racino and slots tracks consistently in the bottom of HANA’s ratings. Apparently, slots money does not solve everything. Maybe you still need to pay attention to the horseplayer and what he wants.
Economists often talk about the law of unintended consequences. According to wikipedia, “the law of unintended consequences has come to be used as an adage or idiomatic warning that an intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.” The economics of horse racing is a very complex thing when you factor in the horsemen, purses, the simulcast signal, the live product, and the bettors whose bankroll make the sport possible. Well, one unintended consequence of the Canterbury Park/Mystic Lake partnership is a clear signal that the horseplayers are no longer the priority. The Mystic Lake partnership may boost purses, but if you alienate the horseplayer and handle goes down, your newly increased purse structure means nothing. Take a lesson from California racing, if you alienate horseplayers and handle goes down, your track will suffer. Take a lesson from Keeneland and Tampa Bay Downs, if you understand horse racing and understand what the horseplayer wants, handle will increase and your track will be successful.
Meanwhile, I sit in the comfort of the home office of onehorsestable.com and follow live horse racing via TwinSpires. This is not the 1970s. I have no need for a live racing product in my backyard. I don’t need Canterbury Park’s simulcast center or a local OTB. Thanks to a laptop and a high speed internet connection, I have ample opportunities to wager on horse racing through TwinSpires. Why don’t racetracks realize that horseplayers have options. I can move my money to tracks with the best racing, the lowest takeout, the biggest fields, or whatever I choose. Since my boycott of Canterbury Park, I have been able to focus heavily on the final days of racing at Indiana Downs, harness racing at Balmoral, and my usual steady diet of Arlington Park. Though my bankroll shifted to those tracks, I still had the chance to watch and comment on racing at Ellis Park, Hoosier Park, Ruidoso Downs, and Delaware Park. To modify a quote from the HANA Harness blog, you may have certain tracks where you do better than others and you can’t ignore that, but when all else is equal, horseplayers need to be looking for the best deal and the tracks that cater to the horseplayers.
While casinos entice bettors with free admission, free meals, and discounted hotel rooms, Canterbury Park has gone to great effort to prevent me from attending live racing and wagering on their product. Imagine a casino going to such great effort to keep me from playing their slots or table games. Like any early adopter of social media, when I was dissatisfied with the Canterbury Park phone call on July 6, I took my frustration to Twitter. Since the beginning of my Twitter account, I have never used Twitter to complain or engage in verbal warfare. But this situation made me upset. I took my frustration to Twitter and got a variety of responses. In all fairness, the Canterbury Park Twitter account did respond promptly and engage in conversation with me via direct messages. We then exchanged e-mails in which the person behind the account said a resolution would come by the end of the day. Despite the noble efforts of this track employee, the answer I received was the same information I received over the phone: 1) No, I cannot reserve any seat in the clubhouse level, 2) everything is reserved for tribal personnel and sponsors, and 3) you can put your name on a waiting list. What a missed opportunity! The Twitter world had witnessed the entire situation unfold. What a great opportunity this would have been for Canterbury Park to give me Table 424 for that day in honor of my promoting their brand on Twitter and wagering on their product for years. Imagine the tweets that would have come from the onehorsestable Twitter feed had they resolved this situation with awarding me a table. A $10, obstructed view table, that my wife and I love, would hardly take away from the seating for the day. And the word of mouth advertising would have been priceless.
So, I do want to give credit to the Canterbury Park Twitter account for being in communication and making a solid effort to please the disgruntled horseplayer. But when the day was done, it was a lost opportunity for Canterbury and this bettor shifted focus elsewhere. The following week, I received another e-mail. This e-mail was from the Guest Services Manager-the person in charge of all the clubhouse tables. Toeing the company line, this person politely explained-yet again- why I could not reserve a clubhouse table despite my Twitter following and history of wagering at Canterbury. And I was again told how I could be put on a waiting list. There will certainly not be any article written about Canterbury Park’s customer appreciation or the efforts they went to in pleasing a loyal fan. What a missed opportunity to get some incredible social media buzz by catering to a known promoter of your brand. Instead, my live racing needs will be met through Running Aces or a visit to Chicago or Indiana. And all my horseplayer interests are moving east- away from Canterbury Park and toward the Wednesday night Pick 4 at Balmoral and whatever else appeals to me. Rest in peace Canterbury Park. D. Wayne Lukas, Mike Smith, Carl Nafzger, Jamie Ness, Mac Robertson, and Scott Raymond. These are all names of one-time Canterbury regulars who have moved on to greener pastures. So, Balmoral Park, save a seat for me. I don’t ask much; I’ll pay full price for my clubhouse seat and an obstructed view is fine. I will sing the praises of your track and wager on your product if only you will let this bettor attend.