I’m at my usual spot in the corner next to the winner’s circle, where the yellow fire hydrant sits against the rail, right across from the finish line. If I reach out, I can pet the horse that just won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And I’ve just won a nice pick-four wager. Nothing spectacular, but at $585.50 it’s a decent return on an investment of $200 and conveniently perched just below the IRS extortion threshold.
Too bad this scene’s just a fantasy, because I’ve been shut out at my local track, just like almost every other San Diegan who hangs at Del Mar on the non-marquee days — the Wednesdays and Thursdays when $20,000 maiden-claimers make up much of the race card and the big-hat crowd has retreated into their world of plastic surgery and $4000 suits. That’s what happens when the Breeders’ Cup bureaucrats in Lexington, Kentucky, hijack a track, Jack.
“Shut out” is a term of art among horse players, and it refers to a bettor’s failure to get his wagers in at the pari-mutuel windows before the race goes off. Slow tellers, slower patrons, poor planning — several variables, none mutually exclusive, can get you shut out at the windows as the pari-mutuel terminals (often simply termed “machines”) lock automatically when the horses are in the gate. If you get into line early enough, getting shut out from that “woulda’” wager of “shoulda’ woulda’ coulda’” infamy shouldn’t happen. But even though I’d “pre-registered” online months ago like a good peon, and logged on one Saturday morning to buy a ducat as soon as tickets were “available” to the general public — they were no longer available, although one phone rep did inform me that I could buy ten box seats for $10,000.
The Breeders’ Cup caters to mega-wealthy non-locals, including a sizable contingent of real estate moguls from Hong Kong, oil barons from the United Arab Emirates, and the similarly well-heeled. Toss in a hand-basket of vacuous, media-anointed “celebrities,” Forbes 500 Big Apple Goodfellas, politicians, and augmented charity-ball matrons, and there ain’t much room for us track bums.
For me, there were years of anticipation, years of assuming that I’d be at my home track on a cool November day in the shade of the grandstand. I’d be at my ritual site, in my old folding chair, handicapping one Grade-1 stakes race after another. But I’ve been shut out, and if you’re a local horse player, chances are grand that you have been, too. But it isn’t our fault. The game is fixed, baby.
Fewer fans, more profit: Racetrack regulars need not apply
I spoke with Joe Harper, Del Mar’s chief executive, who said that one factor, albeit a minor one, leading to limited tickets is Del Mar’s smallish capacity. “We can accommodate 44,000–45,000, but not comfortably. This grandstand can work well at 38,000, so we’re limiting attendance to that. The owners who’ve had horses nominated and the people who are actually running their horses get the first shot at tickets. Then it goes to the Del Mar Turf Club board of directors. Everybody pays, including the board. Then we open it up to Turf Club members…and then it goes to the public.”
When I queried Harper for a breakdown of allocation, he said, “I don’t know; all that stuff is handled by Breeders’ Cup, not us. I think that if you go on their website, there are still some areas available, but they might just be the ‘walkin’ around the infield’ tickets, and only for Friday [November 3]. I got an email the other day alluding to the fact that there were still tickets, but I didn’t look.”
When I asked Harper about the perception of local, regular horse players getting shut out, he replied, “Well, my only answer to that is if your team is in the Super Bowl, you’re gonna pay Super Bowl prices. It’s just a high-end ticket. This is the biggest day in racing, with the top breeders in the country and $28 million in purses; that’s where we go to get the $28 million. The people who have bought tickets at the high end can afford it. I’m sure a lot of people are thinking, ‘Gee, I can’t afford to go.’ I’m paying $1600 for my seat in the directors’ room. My wife asked me, ‘Who are we going to take?’ I said, ‘Honey, I can’t afford to take you; you’ll be watching at home on NBC.’ There are no free seats and they’re all high-end. For my wife and I to go, it would cost me $3200, and that wouldn’t be on my expense account.”
I offered, “So, with that kind of overhead, it would make it impractical for most of us who like to make money at the track, right?”
Harper replied, “Well, you’ve got TVG [Network, online horse-racing betting] and all that other stuff, so you can certainly get a bet down. Every track [which hosts a Breeders’ Cup] goes through the same thing. It’s like the World Series, where a ticket’s a hell of a lot more than it is for a Thursday-afternoon game.”
Harper says that San Diego’s demographics play a role in creating stratospheric Breeders’ Cup prices.
“We have a lot of high-end areas, so the $200 seat at [e.g., Churchill Downs] becomes a $300 seat at Del Mar. It’s also more profitable here because we have more box seats, luxury suites, and skyboxes than most other tracks have.”
Most expensive ticket?
Harper chuckles, “I think it’s mine.”
Breeders’ Cup three-step: Defend, deflect, and deny
The 2017 Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar epitomizes the inaccessibility and price-gouging that have become the hallmark of big-time sporting events. On Friday, September 1, I once again checked out the Breeders’ Cup website, and after navigating through a byzantine series of “options,” found that for local horseplayers without connections, there are few. If your taste runs to the lesser Friday card, it’s $50 just to get in via general admission to the stretch run area, the asphalt tarmac where you’ll be packed in like an upright sardine, folding chairs verboten by orders from Lexington. Want to see the marquee events, including the Classic on Saturday, November 4? Head down the tunnel and report to the infield, from which access to other parts of the facility are prohibited. Once you’re in the infield holding tank, safely segregated from the hoity toity in the skyboxes, you’re free to pay $100 to watch the races via TV in the infield, where your Benjamin will allow you to sit at communal tables with up to seven strangers. If your budget allows only for a mere $85 outlay — you can roam the infield for 10 hours, seatless.
When it came to a discussion of treatment of the ordinary horse player, Breeders’ Cup chief executive Craig Fravel was both evasive and defensive. “The term ‘gouging’ is wrong. We do have high ticket prices, but we have the finest horses in the world. And saying there’s nothing left is not completely accurate; there’s still walk-around availability.” When I asked Fravel to explain how tickets have been allocated, he replied, “I don’t know that off the top of my head. There are lists of people… loyal customers over the years. We have pre-sale windows that go out to them in an order that’s consistent year-to-year.”
Fravel claims that 10,000–15,000 tickets had been available to the general public, but when I told him about the “sold out” status I immediately encountered, his response was…crickets.
Next, I asked Fravel about the Draconian laundry list of restrictions placed on patrons. Had I read the website correctly? Could this TSA-style manifesto be real? Fravel was blunt, defiant. “Yep.” Unlike every other race day at Del Mar, when the Breeders’ Cup army comes to town, not only are folding chairs barred, but so are food, water, and backpacks, all part of an exhaustive laundry list of “prohibited items.” If you’re willing to fast to forego the astronomical food and beverage prices (how’s $10 for a cup of Coors Lite sound?) maybe you can get by with about $70 for a Friday in the infield. If you’d like to park your car anywhere nearby, better reach into that wallet again. Of course, that doesn’t include any wagers — and the lines at the windows will make placing wagers an ordeal.
When I had the temerity to inquire why the Cuppers had imposed even more restrictions than those already in place at Del Mar (in years past, race-goers could bring their own beer), Fravel cited “security” concerns before reciting a litany of loops and Gordian knots.
“It’s a different operational environment. People are going to be coming in on a lot of public transportation; the way we’re going to manage this event, we don’t want people bringing in extraneous materials. Anytime you have a large event like the Breeders’ Cup, there are security issues, so [barring food and water] will make it easier to get in and out…. We won’t burden the public transportation system.”
Doesn’t it all boil down to making more money selling food and water? “Well, that’s another way to characterize it,” said Fravel. What other reason could there be? When I pointed out that even on Del Mar’s opening day in July and Pacific Classic Day — where attendance has typically been higher (i.e., over 40,000) than the 38,000 or so expected during the Breeders’ Cup — patrons aren’t subjected to such strictures, Fravel stammered, “This isn’t opening day or Pacific Classic Day; we have our own way of putting on the event.”
Ignoring the fact that Del Mar, in its quest to sell $10 beers and $7 hot dogs, already bans such items, Fravel added, “We don’t want people bringing in coolers or large equipment.” But what, I suggested, if I merely wanted to bring a sandwich and a small plastic bottle of water? No dice, says Fravel. “I already told you — that’s just how our operational program works, for security reasons and to make sure the day operates smoothly; that’s just the way we’re doing it.”