When I was a young man, I used to head out to the races and jump in every promotion offered. They were easy to understand, and if there was a huge prize up for grabs a few thousand would have their entry in the hopper. When I had the golden opportunity to design promotions and contests, I wanted players to have a chance to win big doing what they loved. Sometimes this was the greatest part of the job, and other days there was an extra large bottle of aspirin on my desk. Here are some of the promotions and contests out team brought to the players. Some good, some bad, but I wouldn’t have traded this part of the job for anything.
Road to the Roses
Players paid $20 to enter, and the contest would begin with one of the earliest three-year-old marquee races, and would end with the Kentucky Derby. There would be a race selected each week, and on some weekends there would be up to three. Players stopped by the booth where a long entry box was located. It was numbered 1-12, and the numbers matched the colors of the saddle cloths. For the larger fields, there was an auxiliary box that would be used next to #12. The contest was a huge success, and there would be 400-500 players entered. I even had a second and third chance to enter. If you missed the first week, you could enter before post time for the second event and it would cost $30, and the same for the third week, but the cost was $40. Each week, the point value would go up a point or two. The Bluegrass, Arkansas Derby, and Wood Memorial had big time point increases, and you had to turn in your entry in person. The payout was 50 % to the winner, 30% for second, and 20% for third. For players who finished 4th – 10th, they would receive $10 off a lunch or dinner coupon. This was a fan favorite, and a race fan showed me his old entry punch he carries in his wallet.
Gimmee a “High-Five” – After the contest success, my boss wanted me to come up with some ideas for new wagers. He wanted something for the new owners that showed we were aggressive. I looked around the world for big money payout wagers. There was an all-time high lottery payout, and I wanted horse players to get in on the action in our sport. It was 2002, and I found an interesting wager at Caymanas Park in the Bahamas. It was a wager called the “High-Five,” and usually had a large carryover. When it was hit, they had to weigh the money! I know this sounds like the guy who argues about who invented the radio, that’s not the case. All props to Caymanas Park, and I just wanted to put a little twist on the bet. It was going to offered one time per day on the largest field. If no player hit the wager, 20% would be paid to winner’s with four correct. The balance would be carried over to the next racing day with a mandatory payout on the final race card of the month. – It looked like it would work, until I was rejected in a team meeting. Some felt it was too difficult, and nobody would pay attention to this wager. When I began at River Downs three years later, I floated the idea to my new boss. He loved it, but was a little nervous presenting it to the Racing Commission. He showed it to Thistledown as they wanted a new wager. With the new craze for watching poker on TV, they wanted to call it the “Royal Flush.” It never took off, and was never fully understood by horse players. In 2007, Santa Anita stepped up and offered the wager. It took a bit to catch attention, but if you look around you’ll see every track offering this wager. Kudos to Caymanas Park for a super idea.
In the Money / Pick the Losers
The player success with the “Road to the Roses” contest had all team members sticking their spoon into the pot. – I had an idea that would be a neat visual to advertise, and would be an on-track contest called “In the Money.” The track would seed the first pot with $1,000, and players could play at $10 per entry. There were three races selected, and you had to finish in the top three places in the first race, the top two for the next, and have the winner in the final race. I made provisions for scratched runners to get the post time win pool favorite. If no player hit “In the Money,” the entire pool would carryover to the next race day, and new players could get involved with the growing pool. This looked like a home run, until a team member spoke up and said, “how about a contest where you have to pick a loser?” I thought my head would pop-off as that idea was voted in. It was my task to make it happen, and I hated the idea. Instead of the ITM idea, we were going the opposite direction. Well, we called it “Pick the Loser” and all you had to do was not finish ITM for the four races selected. The Daily Racing Form slammed us for a “loser’s outlook” and other tracks couldn’t believe we pulled this stunt. The opening night came, and there were 1,200 entries. In the first race selected, there was a 3-5 shot first time starter, and two others that looked as good. It was a 12-horse field of maiden special weight runners, and the top three riders held mounts on the chalk. The rest of the field looked like three legged donkeys, and it should be easy to have one of the 99-1 shots out of the money. Well, horses can look good on paper, but that’s the reason they actually run the races. At the top of the lane, the saddle slipped on the 1-5 shot causing many runners to pull up, go wide, or get held back by their riders to stay out of trouble. The top three finishers were 60-1, 80-1, and 99-1. Out of the 1,200 entries, only two were alive. One person ended up going all the way for a bumper payday. Needless to say, “Pick the Losers” was not offered again.
I’ve had some interesting jobs in racing, and overall it was great. It took quite awhile for the last contest to blow over, but you can’t hit a home run unless you take a swing. Racing needs to engage racing fans, and keep them around to play multiple races at their oval. If I’m playing in a contest race, I’m more likely to have a wager or two in the same race. Handle grows, the track makes money, purses grow, and the game stays alive. There is no such thing as a quick fix, and we need to focus on the “less is more” philosophy. Cut back a day of races per week, add in the purse money for the existing days, and more horses enter. The more that enter to run, the bigger the pools. The bigger the pools, the more money that can be out back into the game. We need to re-think some of our old ways, and look to a new future. This isn’t your grandpa’s game, and we need to take the new ways into consideration before we adopt the “build it and they will come” mantra.