Commentary

It's the product, stupid

Updated: February 27, 2013, 11:08 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

At a track that was supposed to have been closed by now, in a sport many have written off for dead, business is booming at the Meadowlands. Total all-sources handle for the 2013 meet is up a whopping 33 percent. On a recent Friday night, handle was up 60 percent over the same night a year earlier. A $3 million night in handle used to be a cause for celebration. In 2013, it has become the norm.

Credit goes to the Meadowlands management team, but it didn't exactly reinvent the wheel or the sport of harness racing. None of this has been done with gimmicks, T-shirts giveaways or by bringing in fading rock stars for concerts. Rather, the Meadowlands realized that it had to put on a better product.

Horse racing really isn't any different than any other business that sells something to the consumer. Give them a good product and price it fairly and people will buy it.

Horse racing really isn't any different than any other business that sells something to the consumer. Give them a good product and price it fairly and people will buy it. McDonald's sells inexpensive burgers and fries that are tasty, and that's how it has become one of the most successful businesses in the world.

Somehow, though, that simplest of philosophies has been forgotten at so many racetracks. Small fields, unplayable races, too many racing dates and high takeouts have become the norm, no matter that they are a guarantee for disaster.

At some tracks, especially harness tracks, putting on a good show is no longer important. Their money is made in the casinos and racing exists as a necessary annoyance. Good racing? Bad racing? They have no reason to care.

That's not the case at the Meadowlands, which can't get alternative gaming because of Atlantic City's influence on key politicians like Governor Chris Christie. The lifeblood of the track is betting handle and management set out this year to get every penny possible to come through the betting windows. They knew the only way to do that was to put the very best possible product on the racetrack every night.

One of harness racing's biggest problems is that favorites dominate. At some tracks, particularly the half-milers, it's not unusual to see the chalk winning at 45 percent or so. Even with a one-mile track, Meadowlands racing had become way too predictable.

Management realized that part of the problem was the way races had been written. "Conditioned" races allowed horse to qualify based on how much money they had earned over their recent starts and oftentimes horses with huge class advantages were able to slip in. The result was an overabundance of races with unbeatable odds-on favorites, exactly the type of race most bettors deplore.

Condition races were largely done away with and replaced with "ABC" races. Just as they do at the dog track, Meadowlands horses were classified as A's, B's, or C's based on their ability and each letter group races against one another. The result has been evenly matched fields and wide open betting affairs. Favorites win only 21 percent of the time in the ABC races.

The racing secretary's office also deserves an A-plus. It has consistently filled the races with 10 or more horses. When it looks as if a race is going to fall short of a full field, in many cases it isn't held. With 11 nominees to the Overbid Series of stakes races, the racing office took no chances on winding up with a six-horse field. The race was scrapped.

"The racing itself has been just fantastic," said Meadowlands Director of Racing Operations Darin Zoccali. "[Racing Secretary] Peter Koch has done a tremendous job of classifying the horses. Many of the races are difficult, but this game is supposed to be challenging. That's what makes it great."

The push for a bigger handle included an increased emphasis on low takeout bets that were proving popular with the public. The Meadowlands' most popular bet was the Pick 4 with a 15 percent takeout. Meanwhile, the Pick Six was proving to be a tough sell. So management got rid of the Pick Six and added a second Pick 4, again with the reasonably low 15 percent take. The bettors have loved it.

The final piece of the puzzle became the customer experience. Good racing, full fields and low takeouts won't work if the customer has a lousy meal or gets barked at by a surly mutual clerk.

The final piece of the puzzle became the customer experience. Good racing, full fields and low takeouts won't work if the customer has a lousy meal or gets barked at by a surly mutual clerk. Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural brought in Jason Settlemoir, who had been running his two upstate New York tracks, Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs, and Settlemoir made it his mission to see to it that everyone who comes through the Meadowlands turnstiles has a good experience.

Settlemoir invites customers to personally contact him when they have a complaint and he makes sure that someone on the management team responds to every last patron. When one customer griped that they kept serving the same soup night after night at a track restaurant, Settlemoir called the fan personally, apologized and ordered his catering company to start mixing up the soups.

The Meadowlands has gotten here after some of the darkest days in its history. The Meadowlands was previously owned by the state and Christie wanted it closed because it was losing money. It looked like no one would take it off the state's hands until Gural came in at the eleventh hour and leased the track. According to sources, it is now profitable.

Yes, Gural is gambling that someday the Meadowlands will get slots, but he's also trying to prove that horse racing can still work. That's why he cares so much about the show he and his staff put on. What they've done is to sell a good product, and people are buying it again. It's a lesson for all horse racing.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com