The glitzy new slot-machine casino is going to create some great changes for horseplayers at the Fort Erie Race Track.
Most important, the quality and quantity of racing at the 102-year-old facility should take some big steps up in class.
Ron Barbero, chairman of the Ontario Lottery Corp., told the Happy Handicapper he would not be surprised if the machines churned out gross revenues of $2 million a week.
Now the H.H. is no mathematical genius, but that would mean that the "10 percent off the top" arrangement the province has with the horsemen would produce $200,000 a week for racing purses. That works out to $10.4 million a year.
Divide that by the 125 racing days the Fort might schedule next year, and the bottom line is an average of $83,200 per race day. Along with the addition of the "regular" purse money generated from the takeout on the pari-mutuel wagering, that could bring the daily average up to about $135,000, about 80 percent higher than the current level.
As co-owner Henry Muller, a horseplayer himself, pointed out, "We'll get better horses and more horses and instead of six-horse races you will have nine- and 10-horse races." This, of course, will mean more betting opportunities for everybody and higher payoffs for the ones who pick the winners.
As Fort regulars have already noticed, slot machine players and horseplayers are two different breeds.
Slot players enjoy the fast action and "no-brainer" approach to gambling against the house, which can't lose because it sets the machines to keep from 3 percent to 13 percent of the money.
Horseplayers prefer the puzzle-solving aspects of the parimutuel game in which they actually bet among each other, with the house taking a cut of every pot.
The new casino presents a great opportunity to introduce the joys of horseplaying -- not to mention the beauty and excitement of the great sport -- to a whole new audience of people who already have a propensity to wager.
And, as savvy horseplayers realize, it is also a great opportunity to attract new "dumb money" into the parimutuel pools -- money that could eventually end up in the pockets of "smart" horseplayers.
With this in mind, the H.H. presents a few suggestions on ways to convert slot players into racegoers.
Be nice to the newcomers who wander over to the racing side. Remember, there is no such thing as a stupid question, even if it is really dumb. These people are new, just like you were once.
Brag a bit, but keep it simple. Say you hit a big exacta. Go cash the ticket in the casino (there is a bank of tellers and TVs near the clubhouse end) and mention to a few slot players that all you did was play your house number or the gray horses or the ones with the prettiest silks. You can keep quiet about bouncing Beyer figures, pace ratings, track variants or the trainer's record in the second race off a claim with blinkers on.
Downplay the larceny angle. If you think a jockey isn't trying or a trainer should be arrested, don't yell it out at the top of your lungs. And don't tell newcomers that you have "inside information" about anything. One of the reasons slot players aren't horseplayers is because they fear that racing is an insiders' game riddled with dishonesty. Don't add to the impression.
Don't make fun of slots: Sure, it's a brainless game. Those spinning reels are just decorations since the win-lose decision is made by a computer chip. The background music is designed to make you play faster. And there are no clocks so you lose track of time. As they said in ancient Rome, "Concerning taste, there can be no dispute."
Try to make the slot players more aware of racing. How about some TV sets tuned to the races scattered around the casino? One place to start might be in the big bar area. And maybe a few more "emergency" doors could open out onto the track.
Make the tiny casino area set aside for horse betting more convenient and comfortable. The only seats there now are at the $5 slot machines, which few people play anyway. And why not post the basic program information -- names, numbers and scratches -- on a board in the betting area? Last Tuesday the H.H. was behind a bettor who wanted to play the late double, but had no idea that six horses had been scratched from the races involved.
Sell programs and the Daily Racing Form at the betting area, instead of way over in the gift shop. Why sell programs and the Form at all? Why not treat them as "loss leaders" and give them away? Wouldn't more interest, and wagering, be generated if people got the program for free? And how about handing out tomorrow's program to people on the way out? There are few things that can match the enjoyment of studying tomorrow's races tonight.
And by the way, how about extending the new courtesies to all? Slot players get comfortable seats in well-lit areas and are given plastic cards that provide them with cash rebates. While they play, waitresses come around with free coffee and soft drinks. On the racing side, they sell Coca-Cola for $2.95 a bottle.
The casino has great potential and the new faces are welcome. But horseplayers have been Fort Erie's backbone for 102 years. Don't forget them.