Commentary : Why Birmingham Turf Club Was Bound to Fail

The Washington Post

When the Birmingham Turf Club opened four months ago, people from all parts of the U.S. racing industry came to examine the $85-million race track and hailed it as evidence of the sport's health and possibilities for growth.

Now, many of the same observers are scrutinizing Birmingham again--to figure out what went wrong. When officials from Tennessee, which is considering the legalization of parimutuel wagering, came to inspect the track recently, they were mostly interested in learning how they could avoid duplicating Birmingham's mistakes.

The first thoroughbred track in the Deep South is a disaster, a monument to bad judgment and naive expectations. When the track opened, its officials were projecting an average daily attendance of 10,000 and an average handle of $1.3 million. Those figures were the basis for the lavish scale on which the track was built--but they didn't even come close to reality.

To date, Birmingham's average attendance has been 6,069 and the daily handle $409,825. Employees are demoralized; purses have been cut; horsemen have defected; management has made a desperate series of changes in the racing schedule. But the track is so deeply bathed in red ink that the current ownership may not be able to survive unless it gets some outside help with fresh money. The state legislature recently passed a measure allowing out-of-state investors in a race track, suggesting that some change in ownership may be imminent.

What went wrong in Alabama? The answer is fairly clear. Most of the track's woes stem from the unrealistically optimistic projections of its attendance and handle. Actually, Birmingham hasn't done all that badly. In an area where there had never been any thoroughbred racing, an attendance of 6,000 is no disgrace. It looks bad only in comparison with the original estimates. And the figures add up to a financial disaster only because the track was built on such a grandiose scale.

When the visitors from Tennessee were looking at the track they asked publicist Chick Lang Jr. what lessons they might learn from the Birmingham experience, and he answered: "Don't overbuild. Keep your projections within reason."

Bill Killingsworth, a consultant, made the disastrous projections about the track's business and handle. He has been justifiably denounced in many corners of the racing industry ever since. Even before Birmingham opened, it seemed incredible that any rational man could expect newcomers to the sport to wager $130 per capita (as Killingsworth's figures said they would).

In a speech he recently gave in Lexington, Ky., about expansion of racing into new states, Killingsworth said that wagering has been increasing at Birmingham, but he conceded that he had made a mistake--"and nobody forgets your mistakes." Killingsworth evidently overlooked a crucial point that author Eugene Christiansen made before the American Horse Council's convention in Washington last month.

"It is impossible for a new track in a virgin market to perform as well as comparable tracks in mature markets right out of the gate," Christiansen said. "No form of gambling is as difficult to learn as horse racing. It takes time to make new horseplayers. It takes years."

Birmingham didn't give itself that time. By saddling itself with such heavy expenses, the track needed instant results. When the initial crowds and handles were low, management made constant flip-flops in its methods of operations. It first had offered little exotic wagering; now a typical card offers quinellas and exactas on every race, plus six trifectas, two daily doubles and a pick six. Post time were changed frequently; there was night racing, there was twilight racing, there were 19-race Saturday doubleheaders. "What we really need to do," Lang said, "is just put on the best show we can and build some continuity."

And Lang, a former jockey agent and track official based in Maryland, thinks the track is beginning to make progress. "When we opened," he said, "we projected the image of an upscale, glitzy, Taj Mahal kind of place and turned off a lot of the blue-color population. Now we're doing things more like a race track. We've offered some quality promotions. We've got a cable TV show. And more and more we're starting to see people who come out regularly. We're starting to get some solid players. But we know it will take two or three years to build a solid fan base. Time will heal a lot of things."

Unfortunately, with an $85-million plant to pay for, the owners of the Birmingham Turf Club cannot afford to wait so long for success.

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