Off-Track Sites Attract 12,960 to Bet Del Mar

Special to the Times

For more than four decades, Gettys Johnson has been going to the track. Sometimes he goes to Hollywood Park, sometimes to Santa Anita, occasionally to Del Mar.

Wednesday, the track came to him.

Johnson, a 63-year-old postal worker and security guard, was among the more than 10,000 Los Angeles area racing fans who passed up the chance to go to opening day at Del Mar but still were able to watch and bet on all the races.

On Wednesday, inter-track wagering came to Los Angeles.

Was it a success? Will it be what Hollywood Park's Marje Everett calls "the solution and salvation of racing" in Southern California? The first day's figures tend to indicate that it may:

--A crowd of 5,133 turned out at Santa Anita and wagered $1,069,980.

--At Hollywood Park, 4,023 fans bet $950,541.

--At the eight other satellite sites, ranging from Santa Maria in the north to Indio in the south, a total of 3,804 fans produced a handle of $736,319.

Add them all together and you have 12,960 racegoers--there will have to be a new word coined--gambling $2,756,840 without seeing a single horse or jockey in person.

The era of electronic racing is here.

For Johnson, studying his Daily Racing Form and his Del Mar program in the air-conditioned comfort of Hollywood Park's Cary Grant Pavilion, the day arrived none too soon.

"I was in the Navy and I've been coming out here since right after World War II, in '46," he said. "I've been dribbling away a little money all those years.

"I don't never go (to Del Mar) but about three times (a season). It's getting to be too crowded down there. I went down there one day last year and it was just miserable. There just was no standing room. Lines everywhere."

The lines were a little shorter there Wednesday, but not appreciably so. Del Mar's opening-day attendance totaled 23,407 roughly 6,000 shy of last year's single-day record 29,856.

But if, as Joe Harper, Del Mar's executive vice president and general manager, says, it takes three off-track bettors to provide the same income as one on-track bettor, Del Mar did better than break even Wednesday.

Last year's opening-day handle was $4.2 million. This year, on- and off-track, it totaled $6.08 million, an all-time record for the seaside track.

Before Wednesday afternoon, few racing officials had any idea what the impact of off-track betting might be.

"Well, I'll tell you, I wish I had a crystal ball that worked because I really don't know," Harper said. "The big thing is the impact on our on-track business, and I really haven't got the slightest idea.

"Roughly 40% of our business comes from the market area that would be connected with inter-track, so we expect a significant impact on our on-track business. But at the same time we would also expect a significant increase overall (because) we are now into the major market area with Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Pomona and the seven other fair sites.

"Call me back in a week and I'll let you know."

Similarly, neither Santa Anita nor Hollywood Park knew quite what to expect from their first experience as satellite wagering sites.

"I'm going to have to go to school; I have no feel for it," said Everett, Hollywood Park's chairman and chief executive officer. "Don (Robbins, the track's general manager) is optimistic. He thinks we'll get (a handle of) around $800,000."

Cliff Goodrich, vice president and general manager at Santa Anita, voiced much the same view.

"Normally, I take pride in being able to come fairly close on expectations when a meet comes up," he said. "But this is brand new. It is a shot in the dark. It's a guessing game.

"We think by the time it's all over we're going to average about 3,500 people a day. Hopefully, those 3,500 people will wager around $800,000 per day. I think if we can achieve those figures, we'd be very happy.

"Normally speaking, as a rule of thumb around the country, when a race track that runs live is converted to a satellite wagering facility, they tend to do in the area of 15% of their on-track business.

"If we did that, we would average about a million dollars a day. But we won't be the only game in town. Hollywood Park and Pomona are also doing it. So we think that compromises that rule-of-thumb 15% to some degree.

"Then on top of that, you've got a very popular facility in Del Mar. I don't know how many people will continue to drive down. There are a lot of people who go for the season, especially horsemen. There are a lot of people who go for a week or a weekend. And certainly there are a lot of people who will cease going there altogether or who won't go as much."

Judging from Wednesday's activity at the two tracks, those who choose to go to either Hollywood Park or Santa Anita instead, will find an atmosphere much like race day. The cheers and jeers are just as loud, but they're directed at a television screen instead of at a jockey or horse. The only glitch Wednesday was an occasional loss of sound, the problem originating in Del Mar.

Hollywood Park has, after some hesitation, opened the Grant Pavilion to all. The first floor serves as the general admission area, at $2.75 a person; the second floor is the clubhouse, at an extra $2.25, and the third floor is the private turf club.

At Santa Anita, where the entrance fees are the same, a million dollars has been spent to provide air conditioning in those portions of the grandstand and clubhouse set aside as inter-track wagering areas. Just as at Hollywood Park, the furniture has been rearranged to accommodate the bettors, and a sizeable number of large-screen television sets have been installed. As usual, the restaurants and bars are open at both tracks.

Goodrich, for one, sees a good future for inter-track locally.

"I think everybody's going to benefit," he said.

"We certainly think there will be some impact on Del Mar, but when all is said and done, given fewer traffic problems at Del Mar along with making it more convenient to wager on the races at Del Mar, whether it be right there or at a satellite, I think Del Mar is going to be very pleased with the way things turn out.

"I think they will benefit. I think the tracks such as ourselves will benefit. If that happens, I know the horsemen will benefit. And we certainly did our best to convince the state that it will benefit, and I think it will. So it's a win-win situation for everybody involved."

Especially for bettors such as Gettys Johnson, who no longer has to make that 100-mile drive to Del Mar.

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