By John Piassek
Wednesday, March 28, 2016
It’s late March, which means that we are just a month and a half away from opening day at the Shore’s Greatest Stretch: Monmouth Park Racetrack. As things stand now, Monmouth is a fine racetrack, a beautiful place to visit, and offers an excellent betting product most days. That being said, I think that there’s a few ways that the track can make itself even better. After a whole off-season of thinking about such things, here’s ten ways I think Monmouth can improve itself for 2016 and beyond.
- Have twilight racing on Friday afternoons
As things stand right now, Monmouth plans on having a 12:50 first post time every day of the meet (except Haskell day), including Fridays. While having that post time on the weekend makes sense, to have an early start on Friday afternoon undercuts an opportunity at handle growth.
If Monmouth started three hours later than they normally do, with a first race at 3:50 PM EDT and the finale at around 8:00 PM, they would do themselves favors both on and off-track. On-track, having a later post time, with most races taking place after the workday has ended, enables more people to come on out to the track. If Monmouth promoted the later post time locally (“start your weekend early with Friday twilight racing at Monmouth Park!”), and gave people incentives to come (discounted parking/admission/program prices, food & drink specials, a guaranteed late pick 4 and/or pick 5 pool), a spike in attendance would likely result
Off-track, the track would put itself in a better simulcast position. Simulcast outlets on the West Coast would take the whole program (as opposed to skipping the first few races now), as it would begin at 12:50 PDT, opening up more avenues of handle. Also, in general, handle is larger on races that take place later in the card (probably for the reason just listed), so all races would see a handle increase from off-track. This has been proven in the field, too. Last summer, Belmont Park ran three Friday twilight cards, and the on-track and total handle on those programs were, on average, higher than the Friday cards with a normal post time.
- Reduce parking/admission/program prices
Starting this season, parking and admission at Monmouth will be $5 apiece. Last year, a program was $3.75—who knows how much it’ll be this year. In other words, the average fan will be down $13.75 before they even bet, and coupled with gas, tolls, and the ever-fun Jersey shore traffic, the total price paid to go to the track may not be worth it to some people.
In an era in which New Jersey has several off-track wagering facilities, all of which cost $0 to enter, to charge fans $10 total to park and enter is absurd. It’s true that it’s still a cheaper entertainment option than a lot of other places in the summer in New Jersey (including the beach, in a lot of cases), and that you can win it back if you win enough bets, and that Monmouth sometimes gives out free admission passes in the mail (which is brilliant). But compared to other free-admission gambling options (as previously mentioned with the OTBs), and the fact that most people will be spending more money once inside, and will in fact not win it back, it’s nonsensical.
The parking price should definitely be cut down by at least 60%, and should be even further discounted on Fridays, as noted. Admission should be reduced by at least 75%. Will it cost the track money? Not if they get fans who didn’t want to pay all that money back in. In addition, all the money that fans didn’t pay in parking and admission will, in most cases, go right back into their bankroll. More money bet not only means more in the pools, if the fans win it back, they’ll bet more of it right back into the pools, increasing overall revenue. It’s math.
- Combine stakes races into numerous big race weekends
Right now, with the exception of Haskell day, a race day at Monmouth very rarely contains more than two stakes races. This is well and good for ensuring that every weekend day has a stakes, but it also usually means that the best quality races get obscured. After all, how many people would pay attention to a program with “just” the Select Stakes, or the Mr. Prospector Stakes?
As I noted in an earlier column, the handle on stakes races always increases whenever more than one of them are held on the same day. NYRA did it at Belmont and Saratoga last year, and saw drastic increases in handle. The same is true at my other home base of Laurel, where there may be only one Saturday a month with a stakes race, but that day will often have three or four stakes on it.
Ideally, Monmouth should built its stakes schedule around three big weekends: Memorial Day weekend, United Nations weekend, and Haskell weekend. While there would obviously be other stakes run at other points in the meet, the following stakes can be clumped around each other:
Memorial Day weekend: Pegasus Stakes, Monmouth Stakes, Salvator Mile, Miss Liberty Stakes, Monmouth Beach Stakes
United Nations weekend: United Nations Stakes, Monmouth Cup, Long Branch Stakes, Elkwood Stakes, Molly Pitcher Stakes, Jersey Shore Stakes
Day before Haskell (Ladies Day): Monmouth Oaks, Matchmaker Stakes, Regret Stakes, Lady’s Secret Stakes, Miss Woodford Stakes, Colleen Stakes
Haskell Day: Haskell Invitational, Oceanport Stakes, Phillip Iselin Stakes, Teddy Drone Stakes, Tyro Stakes
Imagine a Haskell weekend with eleven stakes spread out over two days, with Haskell Saturday being as much of a racing bonanza as the big day itself? Or a Food Truck Festival day with horses contesting the United Nations and Haskell prepping in the Pegasus & Monmouth? There’s a lot of opportunity here, especially with the handle on each individual stakes almost guaranteed to rise.
- Improve the race-day media production
While the handicappers and hosts that Monmouth currently employs — namely, Mike Curci and Brad Thomas—are top-notch, they’re not on the air enough. They go on usually before the start of the racing day and before the start of a major betting sequence (like the late pick 5), but not before every race. This is somewhat baffling, given that just about every other track with paddock hosts has them come on before every race. Santa Anita goes beyond the call of duty, with their hosts providing commentary during the post parade, offering their last-minute opinions and thoughts on the odds board. Monmouth should emulate them in that regard. Especially with a crowd that often consists of newcomers who may not be super-familiar with racing, to hear knowledgeable people giving insight before each race can be helpful.
While the graphics are very well done at Monmouth (the 2015 graphics were a major update over the 2014 ones), there are a few minor things that can be improved. It would be helpful, for example, if the results from earlier in the day were posted at the bottom of the screen, along with the changes from later in the day. Speaking of those changes, they are currently posted individually, which can take a while. Rather than having it say, for example: Race 1: 1, Joe Schmo, Scratched (pause) Race 1: 2, Joe Blow, scratched, etc, it should simply say: “Race 1: 1, 2 scratched”. Streamlining such information makes it easier for people to get changes quickly.
One more thing: A while back, Monmouth would have a brief replay show in the middle of the day, that would show the stretch runs of the first few races of the day. For late-arriving fans, that was a cool feature.
- More and Better Food Options
The first time Monmouth did a seafood food-truck cook-off, in 2010, the prize for the winner was a stand at Monmouth next summer. I can’t remember the name of the winner, but they had a stand for the winning truck for a few years, and it was excellent.
If the major local drawing cards of the Monmouth season are the food truck festivals, it would be cool if there was a bonus attached; over the course of the festivals, the patrons would vote on which truck was the best, and the winner of each festival would have a stand for the entire 2017 season. The process would start anew the season afterward.
Is better food a huge thing for Monmouth? Not really, but it’s nonetheless an important part of the overall fan experience. Besides, what could be better than going to Monmouth, spending a day at the track, then grabbing a Max’s hot dog while there? Nothing.
- More Expansive Social Media and a Better YouTube Channel
I often point to NYRA and Santa Anita Park as having the best social media accounts in racing. They constantly post updates about their racing: carryovers, race results, picks and analysis, all of them are featured on a steady basis on their twitter accounts. Monmouth does an excellent job posting updates of their big races on facebook, and help fans keep tabs of major events through that website, too. However, it’s only one part of the overall social media package. Plenty of racing fans are on Twitter, and many of them get a lot of their news from there. Monmouth should keep fans posted on handicapper’s picks, big carryovers, scratches and changes, and race results throughout the day. By making in an immersive social media experience, Monmouth will enable fans to follow the action more closely.
The YouTube channel, frankly, leaves a lot to be desired. There is a replay of only one race all year: the Haskell. Every stakes race, at the bare minimum, should be posted. I will give Monmouth credit for the excellent show by Brad Thomas, “Shades Off”, but in an era in which tracks have a convenient avenue for making races easily accessible, Monmouth should seize the opportunity.
And I know that they post replays of all their races on their website, but it’s a lot easier to simply post a YouTube link when trying to link to a race.
- Reduce the number of races per day
This is something that I’ve harped on in the past, not just in this column, but in general. Running twelve races every single Saturday and Sunday, in my estimation, makes for way too long of a race day. In a world where basketball and hockey games are 2 ½ hours long, maximum, to make fans stay for 5 ½ hours every day to see a full card of racing is insanity.
Besides, a lot of the races that Monmouth runs are the weekend are filler that the card would be no poorer for not running. United Nations day last year, for example, featured a seven-horse n/w2L claiming race, and a six-horse race at the same level. Would anyone have cared if those two races were dropped, and there was a ten-race program of all quality races? Probably not. The idea should be quality, rather than quantity, as I think it’s better to have fewer races with bigger fields, than a bunch of small, uninteresting fields.
Not to mention, cutting back on races saves the track purse money. The total purse of the two aforementioned races, for example, was $58,000. Cutting that money out enables the track to re-distribute it to other races, creating higher-pursed races and a more appealing product for horsemen. Speaking of purses…
- Create purse incentives for shipping in and for bigger fields
Two of my favorite ideas in recent times were created by NYRA and Saratoga. At NYRA, there was a stretch in which they were giving out a $10,000 purse bonus if eight or more betting interests left the paddock. The increase is still in effect for bigger racing days, but not all the time, and I think it’s something Monmouth could use. While the amount of races would have to be cut for such an idea to come to fruition (following the idea in #7), it would be worth it. My idea would be to increase the purse of the race by 10% should eight or more horses leave the paddock. So a bottom-level maiden claimer, currently worth $14,000, would be worth $15,400. A first-level allowance would be valued at $44,000. An average overnight stakes would have a purse of $66,000.
The benefits are plentiful. Numerous studies have shown that handle rises with each horse added to a race. By giving horsemen more incentive to enter in big fields, Monmouth will see field size increases, and by extension, bigger handle.
Del Mar’s idea, known as “Ship & Win”, consists of giving out bonuses to horses who ship in to Del Mar. Any horse who made their last start outside of Southern California automatically gets a $1,000 bonus just for running. In addition, they also receive 30% on any additional purse money earned. Considering all the intense competition for horses among the numerous east coast tracks, giving horsemen a similar bonus just for racing at Monmouth Park is a smart idea (of course, this plan would likely be implemented later in the season, considering every horse early in the season is a shipper). A similar idea that can be created instead rewards horses who stay at Monmouth—after a horse makes a certain amount of starts at the meet, they’d get a bonus for every additional race they run at the track.
- Revive and organize the fan ambassador program
For the past two seasons, Monmouth has tried to create a fan ambassador program to help educate new fans. For a variety of reasons, not relating to fan responsiveness, the program has not really taken off, and I’m not sure if it will be re-instated for 2016.
There are not many tracks that could use a program like this as much as Monmouth. There’s always some sort of an event going on, which is great as far as getting people into the track is concerned. Once they’re at the track, however, they may not know what’s going on with the racing. Having a group of people help them along will help them become fans, and hopefully win some money!
Programs like this aren’t unusual, of course. Keeneland has people, known as “Betologists”, who assist members of the large crowds on the pari-mutuel arts. Santa Anita has “wagering ambassadors” who do the same thing, and that program has been a success this season. With a large pool of inexperienced fans coming into Monmouth every weekend, helping them become fans will be important for increasing the fan base.
- Create more on-track and online contests
This January, Monmouth created a daily fantasy sports website, called “Score at the Shore”. I think the idea is great, as if Monmouth is being unfairly deprived of having sports betting, having daily fantasy sports is the next best thing.
However, for some reason, there are no racing-related contests on the site. Considering the amount of opportunity there is for racing to capitalize on the DFS craze (as seen by the popularity of DerbyWars), Monmouth has the chance to combine its racing with the excitement, and send their racing out to that set of people. Given the popularity of the yearly “Survival at the Shore” contests, imagine how well daily contests on “Score at the Shore” would go. They’d be a smash.
More on-track contests, too, would be a boon. Monmouth does host the NHC tournament qualifiers several times every year, but given the high entry fees and quality of competition, those contests are hardly accessible to the average fan. NYRA set a good example this summer with their “Low Roller” contests, which costs only $30 to enter, and gives the player five races to place $2 across-the-board bets in each one. There’s many other directions you could go in: how many exactas or trifectas could a contestant hit in a day? How long can they stretch a show parlay? And so on.
Of course, this whole article is just a starting point. There’s a lot of ways that you could branch off and improve on all of these ideas, but all of them rotate around the same basic point: there’s plenty of ways for Monmouth Park, which is already a well-run track that puts on a great product, to further improve itself. It’s further improvement that will help create a long-term fan base and help the New Jersey racing business.
John Piassek is a student at Loyola University in Maryland. He prides himself as a supporter of racing in New Jersey and Maryland. John is an aspiring race track announcer, marketer and writer. His “Mid-Atlantic Musings” column on DanonymousRacing.com focuses mostly on NJ and MD racing, ways to market them, how the states can improve their racing, and how racing should start focusing on bettor-centric marketing.
You can follow John on Twitter @Theyreoff.