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Monday, August 1, 2011

Time to "Sex Up" the Hambletonian

Morris Bailey, the new operator of Monmouth Park has big plans for their signature race, The Haskell.  Instead of being a one day event which attracts a lot of people, he plans to not only aim for the younger generation; he plans to make The Haskell a three or four day event.

Which brings us to the Hambletonian.  Yes, the Hambletonian draws the biggest crowd of the year and the highest handle, but realistically what is Hambletonian Day?  It’s a day when parents come with their kids for the rides and games and younger people come for a party (with beer) and the music but the race never becomes a big event.  When you think of the New York metropolitan area, attendance of 29,000 is kind of embarrassing.   The visuals may be good on the outside with the large crowd on the apron and paddock park but the grandstand and clubhouses are half empty if not more.  How can this happen?
The NJSEA has simply blown the opportunity the Hambletonian could have brought to the Meadowlands.  They thought the race would sell itself.  From the first year when the Hambletonian came to the Meadowlands, the NJSEA mismanaged the event by trying to jack up the prices of parking, admission, and seating as the Meadowlands tried treating the Hambletonian as the Kentucky Derby and people revolted by staying away.  After that, the NJSEA tried to sell the racing the week of the Hambletonian as an event leading up to the big day and the importance of the race.

And there lies the problem.  Unless you are a breeder or a horseman, the Hambletonian is just a race with a big purse.  What was unique of it, the heats were taken away years ago.  I understand why it was done and I am not suggesting we go back to the traditional format.  The racing which leads up to Hambletonian Day is meaningless to these people and quite honestly to everyone other than the participants.  What was done is done and there is no sense in looking back.  The point is people come to the track, party and wager and disappear until the following year.
The reason is the community has not embraced the Hambletonian and for that fact the Meadowlands.  Why?  The Hambletonian is a race and not an event in the community and as such has not attempted to become a valuable member of the community.  What makes the Kentucky Derby a big event?  It has become identified with being part of Louisville by becoming a good corporate citizen.  There are charity events geared towards supporting the local community.  It attracts people to Louisville and contributes to the economy and it develops good will for Churchill Downs.  Why can’t the Meadowlands do this?

Realistically, nothing can be kicked off until the new Meadowlands grandstand is opened.  But it is time to have the Hambletonian become an event.  Establish the Hambletonian Charity Foundation which will host events with the funds being donated back into local charities.  During the run up to the Hambletonian, have parties at various locations, even New York City to attract people.  Have concerts which will attract younger people to the track on the dark days (with the open grandstand it will be easier) and for those really big concerts, host them at the Izod Arena or even Prudential Center.  Perhaps have a blockbuster concert the night the Hambletonian is contested  The goal is to draw people interested in social events which benefit charities and the younger people looking to have a good time.  When the money flows into local charities and people are having a good time at the track (even if not with racing), the Meadowlands will be embraced by the community.   Maybe then, not only will you draw larger crowds to the Hambletonian; people who come to the Meadowlands once a year will start coming more often.
Is this impossible, I think not.  Jeff Gural realizes the importance of being a good corporate citizen at his other tracks so there is no reason to think this philosophy won’t be coming to the Meadowlands.  When you become part of the community, the community supports you.  Maybe then the Hambletonian will become the event  it has the possibility to become and the Meadowlands will benefit by it..

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