Is there any business that pays less attention to its customers than the racing business?
The typical track management seems only dimly aware that people come to their establishment hoping to handicap intelligently and to win money. It may be nice for race tracks to plant petunias in the infield or to serve a good plate of corned beef and cabbage in the dining room, but the most important thing any track management can do is to recognize and address its customers' needs as bettors.
Not many tracks even try. But Arlington Park, just outside of Chicago, is making efforts in this area that could serve as a model for the whole racing industry. There is nothing in the country quite like its Handicappers' Information Center.
The center occupies two spacious rooms on the third floor of the Arlington grandstand. One room is a 250-seat lecture hall that serves as the site for daily handicapping-oriented presentations. The other room has its walls covered with data that horseplayers might find useful. Not only is there basic information for neophytes, but plenty of material that serious players will find useful:
* A shoe board, showing the type of footwear with which each horse is equipped. (This information often proves vital on a sloppy track).
* The vet's list, giving the names of horses on the grounds who are temporarily barred from racing because of physical infirmities.
* The starters' list, showing horses temporarily barred from racing because of a habit of misbehaving at the gate.
* The "track cushion chart," which indicates the depth of the Arlington racing strip at various locations and also tells what type of work the maintenance crew did since the previous day's races.
* A list of "stuck horses," whom their trainers wanted to scratch but weren't allowed to do so by the stewards.
By contrast, in Maryland, where Laurel will open its season today, none of this information is accessible to the average racing fan. Arlington made this breakthrough as the result of one casual conversation between a horseplayer and a track executive.
Scott McMannis was a college administrator until he decided in 1979 to pursue his lifelong interest in the horses. He became a full-time bettor and also conducted public handicapping seminars.
Two years ago, John Mooney, who was then president of Arlington, asked McMannis what he thought the track might do for its fans, and McMannis suggested a centralized location to provide information to both newcomers and seasoned bettors. Mooney asked McMannis to draw up a proposal, and then asked him to run the center. McMannis accepted the job enthusiastically.
When McMannis said he wanted to post the names of stuck horses and those on the vets' list, he encountered a bit of resistance, but he argued successfully, "If you don't display it, people will assume you're deliberately keeping it from them." He also inaugurated ambitious presentations on handicapping. Each day before post time, he analyzes a few of the day's more interesting races. He conducts an eight-week advanced handicapping course that deals with such sophisticated matters as speed handicapping and trainer analysis. Each Sunday, guest speakers are invited to the center to discuss far-ranging aspects of the sport.
After speaking at Arlington Park's Handicapping Center last Sunday, I came away convinced that McMannis' efforts have had a definite impact on that track's racing fans. At the start of a question-and-answer session, I expected to hear the typical kinds of questions that untutored racing fans commonly ask: "What's more important, speed or class?" Instead, the Arlington crowd wanted to know: under what circumstances do you advise splitting a track variant? Are there special difficulties computing par times for fillies and mares?
Most race tracks don't seem to realize that people who develop this kind of intense interest in the handicapping process are going to be their devoted customers for life. Arlington understands that. "We're trying a revolutionary marketing strategy here," said the track's new president, Joe Joyce. "It's called being responsive to our customers."