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Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Trying to bring a slice of the Spa to NYC

By Bob Ehalt

Whoever believes horse racing is a sport strictly for senior citizens probably has not been to Saratoga.

Walk around the backyard area of the Spa on any racing day and, yes, you’ll find some folks who have AARP membership cards or are collecting social security payments.

But you will also see their children and their grandchildren and perhaps their great grandchildren as well.

As much as a day at the races in upstate New York might involve the same chasing of a Pick Four or reading the Daily Racing Form as it does in the urban confines of New York City, picturesque Saratoga goes far outside the sport’s typical box in showcasing a positive business model for the sport through the large crowds that pour through the gates each day, bringing with them coolers, chairs, trays of food and family members of all ages and sizes.

They will arrive early, hours before the first race, and stake their claim to prime territory in the backyard by putting a tablecloth on one of the track’s coveted picnic tables. Later they’ll spend the day eating, drinking, laughing and watching and wagering races as a family unit.

It’s like a Saturday afternoon at the park or beach, only with a bugler delivering the call to post 10 or so times a day.

Yet as much as Saratoga is a reminder of how alluring the sport can be for fans of all ages in its premier setting, racing in New York City and Nassau County is a much different beast. At Belmont Park, there’s a backyard larger that’s just as relaxing, and perhaps even larger than the one at Saratoga. Yet most days in the spring, summer and fall, Beautiful Belmont Park, despite its dramatically larger demographics and adjacent population, resembles a ghost town.

That challenge of bringing at least a small slice of the Spa to the Big Apple is what keeps Rodnell Workman busy during most days on the job. He’s in his first year as a Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for the New York Racing Association, and as a native of Queens he understands the different set of dynamics that are involved in doing business in upstate New York as opposed to the city that never sleeps.

“Here in Saratoga there are no other distractions or pro teams to compete with,” said Workman, who worked for Madison Square Garden, as vice president of strategic partnerships, and the New York Giants, as marketing manager, for nearly 10 years before joining NYRA. “Racing owns the town here. It’s so deeply rooted with everyone and you’ll see a wide variety of people here, from the super wealthy to Joe Fan who is having a picnic with his family in the backyard.”

“Saratoga shows what racing can and should be.”

Crowds, like the 34,408 that turned out to watch the Alabama Stakes on Saturday, Aug. 18, reflect how Saratoga remains a magnet for fans, even in its 144th year. On a midweek day, say Thursday, Aug. 23, there was a healthy turnout of 14,712. Conversely, there’s an abundance of elbow room at Belmont Park, day in and day out. On the final Saturday of the spring/summer meet, only 5,948 were on hand for the July 14 card. Two days earlier, the crowd at Belmont numbered just 3,628 for a Thursday afternoon card.

Clearly there’s no magical solution to NYRA’s attendance woes at Belmont and Aqueduct, but are there at least bits of the Saratoga formula for success that can be shipped down the Hudson River? While acknowledging that Saratoga is a unique environment for racing, Workman says NYRA hopes to boost attendance by focusing its attention on weekends and promoting Belmont and Aqueduct as attractive entertainment options for both gamblers and families.

“We know Saratoga benefits from being a summer resort and in the fall people go back to work on Mondays through Fridays. So we want to elevate our presence on weekends and create theme dates to entice people to come out to the races,” Workman said.

Among the ideas floated by Workman to bring a more youthful element to the NYC racetracks were moving Belmont’s Friday afternoon “Party at the Park” concerts to the weekends, and bringing to the Big Apple some of the amenities and vendors that make Saratoga distinctive.

“There was a time when going to a baseball game was just getting a ticket and seeing a game,” Workman said. “Now it’s part of an experience, taking in everything all the stadiums offer. Racing needs to do that same thing, and you see it at Saratoga. It’s still all about the horse, but it helps when you can watch the races and have a great experience too.”

Given racing’s unfortunate lot of having to battle for attention with the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Knicks and Nets -- not to mention casinos -- Workman knows Belmont Park will never rival Saratoga as a fan destination -- except, of course, on Belmont Stakes Day. Yet there’s no talk from him of waving a white flag and giving in to the naysayers who view racing as an aging sport on a life support system.

“I don’t believe racing is dying but being relevant is a concern,” Workman said. “The sport has to evolve and change and embrace a new audience. It has to stay in touch with the times and technology. I believe racing has great potential. If you let people see it, they will appreciate it more times than not. Seeing the sport up close can create the buzz racing needs. That’s why you have to keep working and trying to find ways to get people of all ages to come out to the races.”

While there might be a touch of Don Quixote in that philosophy, it’s not a completely impossible dream. A walk around the Saratoga backyard will teach you that.