Off the Pace: The racetrack of the future

Between the projected plans for rebuilt facilities at Pimlico and Laurel and the ongoing upgrades at Belmont, the designs and layouts of racetracks have been the subject of much discussion recently. I think the great majority of people would agree that with the exception of Saratoga, Delmar, Keeneland, and Triple Crown/Breeders Cup days, huge expansive facilities are no longer necessary or cost efficient. 

Bigger’s no longer better; now, small, high-end, and inviting are in. With those precepts, what might the tracks of the future look like in terms of layout and functionality?

1) No turnstiles

Charging admission to someone who wants to wager is penny-wise but pound foolish. If a bettor wants to wager at a track, management should welcome them with open arms.

2) Small clubhouse

Downsizing the clubhouse will lower maintenance expenses and allow management to keep the facility inviting by providing an upscale appearance. Outdoor seats should be close to the finish line, not up the track. There is no need to have both a clubhouse and separate grandstand area with lesser amenities. Every customer should experience the best treatment.

3) Large track apron

On the biggest days, when a little elbow room is needed, the apron can provide the necessary space. This would be especially useful space for promotional events on racing days and can play host to tents and other amenities to spruce things up on big days. In addition, this area would enable the track to host events on non-racing days to raise additional revenue.

4) A paddock with a view

The expansive paddock and picnic area at Delaware Park are great examples. The area is attractive and has good sight lines to view the horses while enjoying the outdoors.

5) Convenient food options

In today’s tight labor market, many food stands are vacant at small and large tracks alike. Tracks should utilize the apron and paddock to host a rotating collection of food trucks. This will provide a good variety of food while lowering labor costs. The tracks could continue to provide higher margin items like soft drinks, beer/alcohol and desserts.

6) A well-maintained turf course

Throw in a good watering system, too. For tracks without these, it will cost money to upgrade. But turf races attract larger fields, and bettors love big fields. The higher handle on turf races should allow for the investment needed to keep the surface in good shape.

7) Modern audio, video, and electronics

From both an on-track and off-track perspective, many if not all tracks should upgrade their offerings in these areas. On-track, there should be numerous high-definition screens throughout the facility so fans can always catch the action, There should be fast, free Wi-Fi available everywhere, and tons of phone charging ports. As for the presentation of the racing product, every track needs good photo-finish equipment, professional sound equipment, and a top-quality televised presentation. Gone should be the days of bad lighting, shaky cameras, and TV screens from the era of the first Bush administration. The in-house production facilities should be utilized to entertain and inform the customer.

8) Mingling

Strategically placed offices for both a top-notch marketing manager and customer service liaison should have a view of, and easy access to, the facility. Any business that wants to succeed must promote itself and be responsive to their customers. You cannot lead from a sheltered back office.

9) Access

For good or ill, racing’s fan base is aging and, in fact, increasingly aged. Most tracks were designed in a time when no one gave much thought to how the elderly or those with disabilities might navigate them; that should change. Every area of the facility should be readily accessible to everyone, including those with mobility issues.

Most American racetracks date from an era when big crowds were the norm, and those crowds didn’t expect much in the way of amenities. These days, however, most days draw small crowds, and people expect a much higher level of amenities from their sporting venues. The proposed projects at Belmont and in Maryland offer those tracks the chance to demonstrate just what racing can look like in the years to come.