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Trot Feature: Racetrack Operators

In this day-and-age there has never been more competition for both the entertainment and the gambling dollar.

It’s been a long time since horse racing was the only game in town. Hear from current and former racetrack operators Murielle Thomassin, Paul Ryneveld, Jessica Buckley and Brett Revington, as they share their thoughts and secrets on what racing needs to do, to both survive and flourish. By Melissa Keith

HARNESS RACETRACKS CANNOT STEP AWAY from the past and tradition with the ease of other businesses. They rely on a customer base that is already in its senior years; they require and maintain infrastructure built when land was cheap, rural populations high, and harness racing the "fastest growing sport" in North America. Too much disruption could alienate the most loyal bettors and participants, or threaten the existence of grassroots tracks where tradition is one of the greatest strengths. Too little disruption, and the sport finds itself defending practices which no longer serve it well.

TROT sought the insights of four people who currently work, or have worked, on the operations side of harness tracks.

Murielle Thomassin
General Manager, Hippodrome 3R, Trois-Rivières, Quebec

The young manager of Quebec's lone pari-mutuel racetrack was named to her role last summer. Non-racino Hippodrome 3R, located about an hour-and-a-half away from Montreal, has loyal fans who attend live cards and wager, inspiring confidence in Thomassin
She tells TROT that racetrack operators must view each other as prospective partners in securing the sport's future. "I would love to see racetracks working together more. For example, doing free publicity in between our own races to promote an upcoming event another track will be having soon." The biggest events in the game can be launch pads for marquee race days at smaller or struggling tracks. "Little Brown Jug or OSS Gold Super Finals... Put it this way, I help you, and you help me when my big race day is coming, kind of deal," she explains. "I believe that united, our sport will survive for a long time."

Growing handle means recognizing that customers have many entertainment and gambling choices today, unlike decades ago when racing was one of the only legal betting options and accessible rural sports. Recognizing that younger customers want a pari-mutuel product that speaks to them, not the "good old days", Thomassin is unwilling to stake Hippodrome 3R's future on its past. "We are working hard these days to change the image of our betting parlors," she says. "We will have a trendier look to appeal to the new generation. We will educate the public on how to wager at all sites, and at the racetrack."

Paul Ryneveld
General Manager, Century Downs Racetrack and Casino, Balzac, Alberta

Alberta is a province with harness racing on the comeback trail, l-argely thanks to the opening of Century Downs in 2015, and the impending debut of Edmonton's Century Mile in 2019. Ryneveld has three decades of experience in pari-mutuel racing, and has spent 12 years in upper management positions at racinos.

The Standardbred racing product must compete with its Thoroughbred rival for attention and dollars in Alberta. "Both industries have obviously been around for a long time in Western Canada," says the general manager of a track that hosts both breeds. "But Thoroughbred - there's more interest in it out here. When we had our little Thoroughbred meet back in the fall, our worst days were as good as some of our best Standardbred days, and it's not due to anything more than people's interest in the different breeds." When he worked in Michigan, he found that local tastes leaned toward harness racing, even as Thoroughbred racing was more heavily promoted.

Through introducing special events tied to harness racing at Century Downs, the track was able to grow both handle and on-track attendance. These events have included the first leg of the 2017 World Driving Championship; a sold-out "Horse Racing 101" women's handicapping seminar with a $25 cover charge; and a hugely-successful race day hosted in conjunction with event-planners Packwood Grand, who promote their namesake paid-admission race days as merging "old world leisure and sophistication with a new audience". On opening day 2018, it was "standing room only" for the track's "Betting Basics" tutorial, which Ryneveld notes is held every live weekend race day.

Fractional ownership though the Century Downs Racing Club has also been a powerful recruiting strategy, notes the racetrack manager: "Those people become your ambassadors. I feel that the second you show somebody a little bit of the behind the scenes - they get to ride in the starting gate, or go up and see where the announcer stands - it just makes them more invested, from a fan standpoint."

Ryneveld projects that nostalgia for the now-defunct Northlands Park will fade as customers take in the improved amenities at Century Mile, soon to serve the Edmonton market. "There's a definite advantage to having a newer facility. We're building [Century Mile] to enhance the guest experience, so when people come out, they'll enjoy it."
The pari-mutuel system does not serve racing as well in an environment with many legal gambling alternatives, he stresses. The monopoly that once attracted the gambling public is gone: "That's the thing the racing industry has to come to terms with, and many haven't. Today, it's horse racing fans who are here, and people who are definitely horse gamblers." Century has turned its uniqueness into "We leverage horse racing as our competitive advantage over the rest of the casinos in Calgary."

Jessica Buckley
President Woodbine, Mohawk Park, Campbellville, Ontario

With all of Woodbine Entertainment's Standardbred programming relocated to Woodbine, Mohawk Park, the nation's largest racetrack operator has opted to move harness racing out of the Greater Toronto Area. Overseeing the transition is Buckley, who served as Woodbine's Vice President of Community Relations and Corporate Affairs prior to being named in her new role last summer.
The racing executive is not afraid to dream big. Buckley's hopes for the future are motivated in part by a steep decline in the number of active racing Standardbreds. "The foal crop is on the rise again in Ontario and it's great to see," she says. "We are committed to presenting the best racing product possible, and that means full 10-horse fields as often as possible. Our racing department does an excellent job and we will continue to work at ways to improve communication with our horsepeople so that we can fill races and put on a great product." Expanded harness racing dates at the year-round Campbellville facility present her with "a great problem to have": developing and rolling out innovative ways to present new seasonal meets.

A new grandstand restaurant, positioned at the finish line, is evidence of outreach to a clientele Buckley invites to join fans already hooked on harness racing. "MHK - Mohawk Harvest Kitchen" is a decided cut above standard racetrack fries and coffee; the "locally-inspired menu" created by Woodbine's own chefs reflects popular trends in Canadian dining, as customers seek healthier fare and sophisticated flavours.

Bringing harness racing closer to regaining market share as a mainstream spectator sport and gambling activity presents a tremendous challenge, even for the biggest harness track in Canada. Buckley is ready, motivated by renewed political support at Queen's Park. "I think the commitment by the Ontario government is very positive news and will inspire confidence in the breeders," she tells TROT. "For our sport to succeed and grow, we need all parts of the industry to do their part, and it begins with the investment by the breeders and owners."

Brett Revington
Former racing experience manager, Red Shores Charlottetown and Summerside, PEI,
and former director of racing, Isle Casino Pompano Park, Florida

Currently the Bureau Director of Standardbred racing for the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, Revington no longer works on the racetrack operations side of the industry. But he has attained a reputation for helping aging tracks adapt to modern tastes, and a career filled with varied experiences in harness racing has provided him with valuable insights.

Looking back to his years in racetrack management, Revington says his favourite parts of that job were the camaraderie that developed among staff and participants, and "the daily challenge of trying to move the needle when it comes to wagering." Growing handle became a personal goal for him. "That's what really motivated me" as a manager, he informs TROT. "Fortunately, I had success at increasing handle numbers at Red Shores on PEI and Pompano in Florida."

A renewed focus on integrity, making customers a priority, and improving North American horse numbers can only benefit the industry, by Revington's estimation. Standardbred breeding and ownership statistics can improve if more small-scale owners are recruited into the game: "I really like the fractional ownership concept, as it makes horse ownership a lot more affordable for more people, which hopefully will help out the horse supply concern in the future."

While he has worked in the United States since 2014, Revington says he has not encountered significant differences in what helps or hinders the sport there: "I think both sides of the border have the same issues. We closely mirror each other so I don't feel any particular issue is unique to either." American and Canadian harness racing actually share an underutilized marketing asset - the Standardbred horse. "I feel we have an exciting industry that is attractive to many when you factor in the appeal of the horse," he offers. "The beauty, power and speed of these animals really is fascinating, and we need to capture that moment.”

What is the biggest obstacle that customers face in harness racing?

MURIELLE THOMASSIN: I think the biggest obstacle is our aging fans. We have to, somehow, turn the clock around and show to the new generation the fun and excitement our sport can bring them and their family.

PAUL RYNEVELD: Harness racing tracks don't face just one big obstacle-they face many. For us, it might be different than for tracks in Ontario or whatever, because we're out here on an island-it's just us and BC, so for me, the biggest obstacle is trying to increase the image and the handle and all of that on harness racing in Western Canada. Part of the issue that we face is horse shortages, particularly at the beginning and end of meets. In the industry across North America, we suffered from perceived integrity issues that detract from people wanting to play the races. That all leads to lack of betting, which, when you have small pools, people aren't intrigued to bet into your pool. They all go hand in hand

JESSICA BUCKLEY: So many businesses face the obstacle of staying relevant and fresh. I think harness racing faces the same obstacle, as we will always compete with other sports and gaming options available locally and online. The way to stay relevant is through the use of new technologies that simplify the game and make it more accessible to anyone. The internet has been a huge opportunity for racing, through innovative wagering platforms and great video content. Our sport is full of great stories, compelling content and the opportunity to play! We will continue to use technology to deliver this to a new generation of fans.

BRETT REVINGTON: Horse supply is very much a concern for the whole industry. This will lead to cancelled cards, fewer races and smaller fields for customers to wager on. I really like the fractional ownership concept as it makes horse ownership a lot more affordable for more people which hopefully will help out the horse supply con

What is the best part of harness racing?

MURIELLE THOMASSIN: The best part of my job is when I see the people coming to the racetrack on live race days. It tells me that we are in the sports event industry for a reason. People that do come to the racetrack just love it.

PAUL RYNEVELD: In Calgary, it was almost like coming into a new market. When we opened in 2015, Standardbred racing had been gone for nine years. The people that go to the OTBs, they had moved on-they were betting other product. There are still people who remember Stampede Park, of course, but for me, the best part of the job is growth. Each year, from 2015 to 2016 to 2017, we've seen growth in handle and growth within events that we've tied around harness racing. Last year, we kicked off the World Driving Championship and it was a great way to showcase racing out here to the rest of Canada and the world. The funnest thing to see is that we've grown the business.

JESSICA BUCKLEY: I have the best job in the world and love what I do. The best part is being around the horsepeople and the horses. Every night is great, but the big stakes nights are special because you get to be close to the stars. I have been around horses my whole life and love to get the chance to walk through the paddock and take in the sights and smells. When I see how passionately everyone is working, this makes it easy for me to remember why we are doing what we are doing.

BRETT REVINGTON: I've had the opportunity to have the perspective from many facets of the industry, from ownership, race office, judge, track management, and again from the regulatory side. Speaking from the track management side, it's the daily challenge of trying to move the needle when it comes to wagering. That what really motivates me. Fortunately I had success at increasing handle numbers at Red Shores on PEI and Pompano in Florida. The team at Pompano and I often discuss the mandatory payout night we had from 2015. We had a carryover of roughly $210,000 late in the season where horse supply was minimal. We managed to put together a large cheap claiming race and that evening they wagered over $1.1 million of new money into that pool. The team was pretty pumped up about that. Gabe Prewitt does a tremendous job and has continued with the blueprint put in place, and the wager has continued to be strong in South Florida. But aside from that, I've really enjoyed the relationships you develop over the years with staff and participants.

In a perfect world I would love to see...

MURIELLE THOMASSIN: I would love to see racetracks working together more. For example, doing free publicity in between our own races to promote an upcoming event another track will be having soon. Little Brown Jug or OSS Gold Super Finals... Put it this way, I help you and you help me when my big race day is coming, kind of deal. I believe that united, our sport will survive for a long time

PAUL RYNEVELD: I think this would be industry-wide: more owners, more horses. If you got more owners, then people would breed more horses, because there would be a market for it. I'm pleased to see they are looking at these standardized rules; on the medication side, one of the things that is advantageous in my opinion is that the CPMA has the same regulations across Canada, whereas in the States, every state has its own regulations and so it gets confusing, especially for a horseman or bettor to figure that out. I am a full advocate of having a standardized rule book that would apply across Canada, so there's no guesswork-this is the way it is, whether you're racing in here in Alberta or you go to Ontario or Charlottetown, it's the same. That will inspire confidence in bettors. I'd love to see gambling get with the times-I look at the history of horse racing in North America and that whole period around the 1900s when it was abolished because of corruption with bookmaking and that. There's still fear about bookmaking or exchange wagering or any of these things, but it's based on the past. My thing is that if a person could come to Century Downs and get fixed odds on a horse, handle would increase. I would have to be proven wrong on that before I would ever change my mind.

JESSICA BUCKLEY: In a perfect world, I would love to see thousands of millennials engaged in fractional ownership, so they can experience the thrill of being a horse owner and aspire to own more racehorses in the future. In a perfect world, I would love to see an integrated lottery product with OLG that directly supports horseracing and engages the gaming customer in our racing product.

BRETT REVINGTON: "I would like to see a group of tracks come to an agreement to lower takeout rates and make a commitment of two to three years to give the initiative a fair chance. At the same time, the same group of tracks also make a commitment to schedule post times to help eliminate the drag. Schedule 'off' times to where each track would have their own two or three minute window where they would be the focus of the patrons. Co-ordinated race calendars would be nice to see as well, to help maximize horse supply for all involved. Also, universal rules would be great to see, along with medication guidelines that would be breed-specific for Standardbreds.

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