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The road curved around to the left and Suffolk Downs came into view. It was a dismal November morning, dark and dreary and drizzling. The joint looked like a factory, I thought. A dirty, dingy factory. There was a fence around the grounds, topped by barbed wire. "What's the fence for?" I asked. "To keep the people in or out?"
I knew what the first item on the agenda was going to be. I was going to tear that barrier down.
Shortly before the gates were opened on April 19, 1969, my first racing day as a track president, I found myself gazing out at 10,000 empty grandstand seats. Ten thousand seats, freshly painted royal blue. I've spent my life putting people into just those kinds of seats. But that day I was at a loss.
We were hoping for 30,000 spectators and a record handle of $2.5 million. Everything that could be done had been done, and still I didn't know. In a ball park, you can take your advance sale, put it into an equation with the attraction and the weather, and estimate within 1,000 of what the attendance will be. But at racetracks there is no advance sale. You have nothing to go by except the day of the week and the seat of your pants.
This is not an idle guessing game. Decisions must be made. How many mutuel clerks are you going to put on? How many ushers will you hire? What kind of parking facilities must be readied? If you've estimated 21,000 people and get 19,000, you are 10% overstaffed. Turn the figures the other way, and you are not providing the services that customers are entitled to. On a racetrack there are hundreds of explanations when the figuring is off. A New England favorite is, "It was such a nice day, everyone went to the Cape." A week later, under similar circumstances, you estimate 19,000 and get 23,000. It was such a nice day, everyone decided to come to the track.
Admittedly, I had complicated whatever equation there might have been by cutting off all free passes to Suffolk. If everyone in Boston who had told me they were never going to set foot inside the track again kept their word, we would set a record for nonattendance. No question about that.
The first time I saw a Suffolk balance sheet, I was appalled. Out of a total attendance of 804,512 the previous year, less than 30,000 had paid. As nearly as I could discover, 50,000 season passes were being sent out before each meeting. Judge John C. Pappas, one of the track's early owners, had been a liquor distributor, and tickets by the stack were still available at liquor stores. Every small-town newspaper in New England was sent what were called press passes, though they were in reality the same as any other pass. The sports editor of any paper of appreciable size received a minimum of 20 a day. Legislators were getting 500 passes apiece, and every peanut politician was on the list for 100.
Each new regime tried to cut off the passes, I was told rather indulgently, but with the drop in attendance and the flak from the politicians, none of the owners had been able to gut it through the first week. The pols counted on the passes for the party faithful. And the bettors simply refused to pay for something they had come to feel was their due.
For each and every caller I had the same answer: "If my dear mother asked me for a pass, I couldn't oblige her. There are no passes. We didn't print any." As far as you are personally concerned, I would add when speaking to a politician, we will be honored to have you as our guest any time you want to come—"All you have to do is call." Maybe I was a little frisky, but I wasn't crazy. To make a pol pay for anything would shake the very foundations of our civilization. But now, on opening day, I was having pause for thought.
The weather wasn't helping one bit. It had been raining off and on all morning. A few crab apple trees sat forlornly in the infield, their roots wrapped in burlap. For that the blame or credit was mine. I had made a decision, with malice aforethought, to plant them in full view of the customers. In part it was to let everybody see—and if they were the right sort, sympathize with—how rushed we had been preparing for the opening. That was hardly the most impelling reason, though; my mind runs along far more devious paths. The real reason was to demonstrate to our customers that our program of renovation was alive and well and on-going.