Doing It Right In The Big Easy

by Ed Meyer

posted on November 13, 2008 in General Discussion, News | No Comments >>

Austin Miller admits he knew little about racing when he arrived at the Fair Grounds last year. Having spent 15 years in casino management positions, including two years as vice president of gaming operations at Harrah’s New Orleans, Miller joined the Fair Grounds management team in June 2007 as vice president/general manager of slots and off-track betting.

What attracted him to the Fair Grounds, he said, was “opening a slots facility, building a team to run the facility and getting to do it twice (for the temporary facility and permanent one).”

But with Randy Soth gone as track president, Miller holds the title — and the responsibility for the entire business, racing included.

Miller is confident he’s up to the task.

He said he “learned a tremendous amount from Randy” during the last thoroughbred meet and the recent quarter horse meet, though Miller doesn’t claim to be an expert on racing.

“What I do understand is how to run an entertainment venue and run a good business, ” he said. “It’s all about customer service.”

Miller, 44, was born in Baltimore and grew up in Delaware, went to junior high and high school in Minnesota, and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1987.

His only job in sports before he became involved in racing, was director of group sales for the Minnesota Strikers, an indoor soccer team, for a few years in the 1980s.

He has worked in casinos in Minnesota, Mississippi and New Orleans.

“First and foremost, Austin is a wonderful people person, ” Kevin Flanery, Churchill Downs Inc. senior vice president of communication and national public affairs, said in an e-mail. “He brings a solid track record of successfully managing people in the gaming industry and an intense desire to learn the intricacies of racing.”

“He has proven he will surround himself with strong, competent leaders that will make our operations successful. Austin’s experience in the gaming industry and drive to provide innovative racing in Louisiana will be invaluable for the future of the Fair Grounds.”

Miller said he likes racing.

“One of the most exciting things you can experience is the thundering hooves coming down the stretch, ” he said. “You don’t get that in other sports.”

Or in casinos.

Miller sees the Fair Grounds’ competition coming from local casinos — Harrah’s New Orleans, Boomtown and Treasure Chest.

“We’re really focused on the fact that we’re a local or regional gaming location,” he said. “I describe it as the best free live entertainment experience in the city.”

Miller said the Fair Grounds is concentrating on improving its customer service. On big days last season, lines at betting windows and concession stands were long. Beer was hard to get on Louisiana Derby Day. Difficulty in maintaining a full work force contributed to customer-service problems.

“I look at it from the standpoint of the experience, ” Miller said. “From a global perspective, do we have enough people to service the customers so the lines are not long, and do we service the people that are here? What customers experience, that’s what’s going to drive a repeat visit.”

“You will find on our big race days, you’ll have more options on the food and beverage side than you’ve ever had. The whole idea is to give people more variety, whether that’s soft pretzels or pulled pork on a bun. You’ll have more access to those kind of things.”

Also, Miller said, the Fair Grounds “is going to have a renewed focus on the (horse) player, give high-end players access to things they’ve never had access to.”

For example, the track might set up a conference call so that horse players can talk to a jockey, trainer or owner, Miller said.

“Find out what’s important to the high-end players and give them more than they had before, ” he said.

Miller said he’ll have plenty of skilled help in overseeing Fair Grounds racing.

Eric Halstrom, who has worked in racing for 15 years, joins the Fair Grounds as vice president and general manager of racing. For the past nine years, he was vice president of racing and simulcasting at Canterbury Park in Minnesota. He was director of mutuels there for three years.

“I’m really looking forward to it, ” Halstrom said of his new position. “Around the country, the Fair Grounds is looked at as a real jewel in racing. Part of what I’m going there for is to foster a good relationship with the horsemen and make sure everything’s going in the right direction.”

Said Miller: “His role is really to guide the racing product through this live meet and into the future.”

New racing secretary Jason Boulet and Donnie Richardson, Churchill Downs Inc. senior vice president of racing, “will formulate our racing product, ” Miller said.

Boulet, who replaced Sam Abbey, was an assistant racing secretary at the Fair Grounds for two-plus seasons, serving first under the legendary Mervin Muniz and later under Ben Huffman before leaving in January 2005 to become racing secretary at Evangeline Downs.

“I’m very excited to be back, ” said Boulet, 40, who is from Lafayette. “It’s always been a lifelong dream to work here.”

Richardson said of Boulet: “We couldn’t have made a better selection. He really knows the locals, and he’s getting familiar with the out-of-town folks. He’s a great addition.”

In September, Richardson and Boulet attended the Keeneland horse sale, so Boulet could meet racing people from across the country. Also, Boulet visited the Churchill Downs backstretch and participated in a conference with racing secretaries from other Churchill tracks.

“I got to learn about the other tracks, the way they do things there, ” he said.

Richardson said he’ll be “in and out quite a bit” this season.

“I’m really looking forward to the meeting, ” Richardson said. “I feel it’ll be an outstanding race meet.”