I remember the train ride out to Del Mar, the serene landscape of the Pacific sprawling outside the window. To a ten-year-old boy, this was the migration to a sacred site. At the end of the tracks, in the berth of the station, my father would always be waiting to whisk me to that place, to the Del Mar Racetrack. Back then, in the late-80s, it held such a unique majesty to me, and even now, with the joys, the burdens, and the trivialities of modern life, there is still nothing that rivals those memories, new and old, and the ones I perpetually make within her gates. I remember when I was twelve, grooming Eddie Gregson’s pony horses all summer long. I remember being scolded for riding horses without a license on the backstretch with Gus Headley. I remember an owner introducing me to an up-and-coming trainer, one he said would be the greatest in the world, a man unknown at the time named Bob Baffert. These are the memories that ring out to me from the past, sun-drenched and dusty-fingered memories that have driven my obsession with the sport as a fan, a horse player, an owner, and they guide this venture now.
Under Joe Harper’s leadership, Del Mar has blossomed from a little seaside track to one of the premier venues in the country. He steered the construction of a state-of-the-art facility in 1992, instituted the Pacific Classic, and brought the Breeder’s Cup to Del Mar, which smashed the record for moneys wagered at the event. Joe is a pioneer who not only deserves our recognition, but our graciousness toward a man who has kept the sport alive. In the last few years, it seems he has delegated the day-to-day operations to other leadership, who now make many of the crucial decisions for the track. Over the next few op-eds, I’m going to speak to these decisions, and I won’t always shed a positive light on them, but they are meant only as a hopeful prescription for a sport that we all love.
In thinking of the challenges we face in the racing world and how to respond, I was drawn to one of my favorite books in my collection. The book is How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins, an auteur in the field of business management and company sustainability. The book charts the different courses of businesses who adapted, wondrously or abysmally, to the changing landscapes of their fields. In it, he describes the five stages of decline. I will spare you much of the details, but one stage stood out to me in particular. Stage three: Denial of Risk and Peril. One of the greatest risks in a business’ life is the avoidance of risk itself. These failing institutions collect themselves around a demure business model, one that prides the “amplification of positives” over negativity, shifts toward consensus rather than fruitful disagreement, and externalizes blame rather than looking at their own actions soberly. In other words, they play it safe, and stick to the methods they’ve always known. Does any of this sound familiar when it comes to racing’s leadership?
One of the major problems of racing today is that, at the top, there is a culture of incuriosity. How many racing executives do we think have read this book? My guess: close to none. We need to think like innovators, and to study how and why enterprises succeed or fail, in order to adapt to modern times. Otherwise, we will continue to grasp at the causes beyond our control and hold to these while the very behaviors that have incited this decline lay in our careless grasp. Every empire can fade. Just look at Carthage, Rome, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. Every business can fail, too. Sears, Kodak, Circuit City, Pan-Am, all seemed to have a near monopoly in their field, and all were driven into the dust of history. Why? Because they would not recognize the failures that could lead to their demise. They thought themselves impervious. Well, for this, Jim Collins astutely references a famous scene from Titanic. When confronted with the impending doom of the ship, J. Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line crows in disbelief: “But the ship can’t sink!” Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, simply replies “she’s made of iron, sire. I assure you, she can.”
Del Mar, and all of racing today, is faced with a similar warning. We can recognize our weak points, or we can become a casualty of our neglect of them. Looking at Del Mar, this opening day, attendance is being capped at 21,750. Why? Are we still blaming covid and staffing issues? Meanwhile, Petco Park fills their stadium with none of these concerns. Del Mar could easily house 35,000 comfortably. It seems ludicrous for a business to be modeled on the notion of turning away new customers. Another thing to consider, for those 21,750 that do make it through the gates, we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing to make sure they return time and again throughout the meet? Attendance does not lead to retention by default, and now more than ever, we need to focus not only on drawing new customers, but making sure the ones that show up continue to do so. How do we do that? By streamlining the customer experience, using the modern technology at our disposal, in ways that many other sports and entertainment venues already have, to make their time at the track as seamless and elevated as possible. The mystique of Del Mar is not sufficient in isolation.
This seamlessness can only be achieved when we first understand the consumer, and the easiest way to do this is to communicate with them and gather data. Nowadays, that means a state-of-the-art app that makes the experience easier, so that they can enjoy all the brilliant amenities the track has to offer. But to study the performance of the Del Mar app now is to be a student of horror. Currently, their app has a score of 20 out of 100 according to Google Insights. How have we let this happen? This app could not only be a flourishing ecosystem of activity for those attending the races, but could become the foundation of a revival in our business today. Just think about it, an app that allows the customer to pre-order drinks for pickup, one that has a community component that allows fans to chat with each other, to share winnings and content, split a bill, share tickets, drinks. We could incentivize them to generate content for the track using promotions like a “best picture of the day” contest that would then be posted to the track’s social media accounts. In today’s entertainment landscape, people do not just want to watch an event, they want to be a part of the experience. With this app, we would allow them to weave into the structure of the track and broaden the appeal of a sport that, in our culture now, is seen as secondary.
The most important aspect of this change is data; it is the greatest commodity in modern life. For us to attain that, we need to invest in getting the app downloaded in the first place. Del Mar has invested in nothing, but a banner on a website to get people to do so. I am sorry, but that is just not going to cut it. We should have young, energetic “street teams” out at the front of the gates engaging with the fans that come in on opening day. Not only would they incentivize people to download the app, with a $20 voucher to do so, but they could help us navigate the data landscape as well. Why is this necessary? Because iPhones updated anywhere past IOS 14 prompt an automatic “ask app not to track or allow” button which, of course, most people press to keep their data away from tracking. But we need this data to better understand the customer and provide a better experience for them. These street teams could leverage those vouchers and tell the customers “hey, this option will pop up, but we need you to allow tracking so that you can access all the features and prizes that we provide in the app.” That way, we are not only bringing them into the app, but integrating them into the culture of the track in a new and vibrant way, assuring that their stop at Del Mar, and all the tracks throughout the country, is not just a once-in-a-lifetime venture, but an experience they come back for time and again.
These street teams could go beyond navigating the digital landscape, because after all, they are there to create an inviting and cohesive atmosphere at the track. In the off-season, they could organize meetups for racing fans at local sports bars or other gathering places in order to watch races from other tracks around the country. In this way, though their own track isn’t running, these fans would still be able to engage with the sport in a community setting which would lay the foundation for a more engaging and vibrant culture at the track.
It is this kind of outside-the-box thinking our sport needs to employ in order to stem the slow hemorrhage of our sport that, if left unchecked, could prove to be fatal. Del Mar is a jewel in the California coastline, and despite the many flaws which I have indicated, it continues to thrive under the conditions, self-imposed or uncontrollable, that have plagued the sport. I offer these thoughts not to be a naysayer, but because this track and the sport mean so much to me. As James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This is my philosophy toward the sport, brutal honesty driven by the kind of love one can only have with the memories and the experiences I have had since I was a child. As such, I cannot sit idly by as we slowly devolve in our contentment with the way things are now.
There are those in the sport who are happy with the way things are. In fact, many of the current leaders in racing claim that the future of the sport looks promising. But as their evidence, they point to data that is deeply flawed. Statistics can always be shaped to sanitize the truth, letting people see what they want to believe. Racing executives point to increased handle via digital vehicles, but this merely a short term fix because few of those players initiate their horse play digitally. They have altered course and allowed ADW to cannibalize our best players. We need to develop new players and replenish our fans. Just look at the net attendance over the past few years, at moneys wagered, at field sizes, at the prestige of the industry itself, it is clear to any astute observer that we are in a state of decline. Now more than ever is the time to act, or else that denial will drive us beyond a point of no return.