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U.S. race tracks once seemed to run their business on the doctrine: comfort is too good for the average man. The old doctrine is in retreat.
At Louisville's antiquated Churchill Downs visitors to the 81st Kentucky Derby next month will ride, for the first time, on escalators and try to worm invitations to 400 new boxes. Not far away, at Kentucky's Keeneland track, the grandstand crowd (who already have a far better view of the finish than anybody on the clubhouse porch) are enjoying lunch in an oak-paneled dining room with a noise-quieting acoustical-board ceiling.
The Laurel track in Maryland has so touched up the grandstand with indirect lighting and colorful murals that an old-timer was heard complaining, "Why, you'd be ashamed to make a $2 bet there!"
This is all a major part of the turf news as sport-loving America finds itself solidly in the grip of the greatest boom in racing history. Last year more than 3 million people, most of whom never saw the inside of a clubhouse, paid their way into the country's 92 big and little race tracks. Once there, despite many an insufferable Saturday afternoon squeeze, they managed to pour more than $2 billion into the machines in a never-tiring, never-ceasing effort to forecast which thoroughbred will navigate a course faster than his rivals. While a steady upward trend has manifested itself in such vital departments as attendance, wagering and purse distribution, the present era of U.S. racing is happily being marked by a rejuvenated nationwide awareness on the part of track management that the ultimate volume of racing patronage will be directly reflected by the amount of interest management cares to show toward the sport's faithful steady customers.
The universal cry for improved conditions and facilities is receiving encouraging response on all fronts, and although the average 1955 race-goer probably will never be fortunate enough to dope out his racing form within the pine-paneled sanctuary of a President's Room such as the one at Santa Anita's Turf Club (opposite page), he will hardly escape noticing that every track he visits this year will be trying to treat him as an intelligent human being rather than as a nearly lifeless form to be buffeted about in the manner of a cattle car passenger, without food or drink. In short, management is in virtual unanimous agreement with the philosophy of Chicago Track Director Ben Lindheimer, who not long ago re-emphasized an old but true point: "If you don't make your customers happy and comfortable, they won't come back." Lindheimer has recently been sinking almost 50% of his profits back into improvement projects for Arlington and Washington Park. He has taken a cue from newer, and therefore more modern, tracks (such as New Jersey's Garden State Park) by making extensive use of high-speed escalators to ease the interior circulation congestion.
Some other racing areas may not be as fortunate as Chicago, California, Florida, New Jersey and Delaware (where the Du Pont-supported Delaware Park track represents progressive planning at its best), but many critical fans are under a general misconception that any succession of heavy betting days automatically means the track becomes overwhelmingly rich and that the failure to spend most of this money immediately on improvements is a sorry reflection on those in charge. Actually, the capacity of improvement plans is firmly limited by what each track takes in during the day and by what proportion of this money is still on hand after heavy taxes, increasing operating costs and purse distribution to horsemen, who are no less emphatic than spectators in their demands for reform.
The important thing today is that the trend for bettering the lot of fans is being directed more in the grandstand and stable area than on the clubhouse side of the fence. Architects on remodeling projects are incorporating the best principles of traffic control, dining facilities and seating arrangements. In New York, for instance, every track is at least 50 years old and original interiors were designed with no thought to eventual pari-mutuel betting—a circumstance which has led, through the years, to some intolerable congestion in betting queues and to the gradual evolvement of the present Jockey Club plan to erect a super $45 million plant at Belmont Park. When the new Belmont is opened it may well have exclusive hideaways to equal anything at Santa Anita. It may also, however, give even greater recognition to the grandstand population and set the pattern for still another era of race track modernization in years to come.