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Youth Movement by Jeremy Martin
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club head honcho aims to introduce horse racing to a younger audience.
Joe Harper knows that people of his generation will always come to the racetrack.
Since becoming the president and general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club Inc. in 1978, increasing interest among the younger set has been one of his main goals. Harper, 60, was a regular visitor to Southern California tracks during his youth, and he believes his facility has an ambiance that caters to people of all ages.
He has improved the track's exposure to the young crowd with a targeted advertising campaign and a Friday evening concert series. He also supervised a $100 million grandstand renovation project that was started more than a decade ago. With more restaurants and better seating areas, the track now has a party atmosphere that wasn't quite there before the improvements, according to Harper.
"(Racing) is not a sport most people play as a kid -- like football, baseball or basketball -- so we have to find ways to get people interested," he says. "The age base in racing is getting older. We needed to bring younger people in as fans. We wanted to create an environment where young people would want to be. Basically, we wanted to put a party on here for 43 days. We do well with our product (of racing) but our business goes beyond our product, it is the party and it is the atmosphere."
His philosophy, thus far, has paid off.
The DMTC, which opens its 2003 season on July 23, trails only the Saratoga Race Course in New York in daily average handle, bringing in more than $12 million in wagers each day of the 43-day racing season. Del Mar was No. 1 in the nation in total average attendance last season, on and off-track, drawing approximately 28,500 fans each day to its races. On-track attendance alone was more than 15,500 per day. Off-track attendance is calculated from statistics from more than 1,000 satellite locations where Off Track Betting if offered.
The track's total pari-mutuel handle was approximately $529 million last season. Most of that came from California OTB, which brought in $223 million alone. Out-of-state OTB accumulated more than $180 million while on-site betting gained approximately $100 million. Another $26 million came from umcommingled handle from overseas sports books and Internet casinos. The DMTC brought in $30 million in total revenues, $10 million of which were profits. California takes a good share of revenues via its pari-mutuel tax.
Although Harper originally thought of Internet gambling as a threat to his OTB business, he says that most of the handle that comes from online sources is "new money" that wouldn't have been bet otherwise. The GM and his staff are working to shut down illegal offshore operations that don't have contracts with the DMTC but take wagers for the track anyways, keeping all of the proceeds for themselves.
Much of the track's success comes from the influx of youth it has experienced in the last decade, says Harper. The Friday-night concert series brings out 3-5,000 people every week of the season, some of which are exposed to the track only because they come to see a particular band. Harper tries to pick popular local acts instead of national headliners in order to "augment our product, not overwhelm it." His advertising strategies have also been successful in helping achieve his goals.
"Of all the tracks in the country, Del Mar has the youngest audience," he says. "We have figured out what they want, and that's a party."
According to Harper, 100 percent of profits go back into improving the track.
"When I came here it was a broken down racetrack," he says. "We figured out a way to take all the profits and put them back into the facility. Every nickel we have ever made has never been for us, it has been for the fans. It's a great formula. Most tracks pay dividends to shareholders that never show up at the racetrack. The money stays here, and that's the way it should be."
The DMTC is a not-for-profit corporation where shareholders make up the board of directors and no stock dividends are paid. The track operates under a 20-year lease with the State of California as dictated by the State Racetrack Leasing Commission.
Harper hopes the DMTC receives an increase in attendance and handle as a result of some national exposure thoroughbred racing will get this summer. "Seabiscuit," a movie adapted from the best-selling novel by Laura Hillenbrand, will hit theaters on July 25, two days after the DMTC begins its season. The film, which stars Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges, is already receiving Oscar buzz.
"The movie will be great to piggyback on," says Harper. "I haven't seen it yet, but I know people that have and they say that it's very good. We will be gearing some of our marketing toward the movie. We are planning on having a Seabiscuit Day here with the cast and crew."
In the late 1930s, Seabiscuit raced and won at the DMTC, on his way to international fame. Although Harper was not involved in any aspect of the movie, he has been asked to speak about the novel and the sport in front of packed rooms at libraries around Southern California.
Harper himself is no stranger to show business. He grew up in Hollywood and is the grandson of legendary movie producer Cecil B. deMille. The DMTC president appeared in two Academy Award winning movies - "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "The Ten Commandments" -- by the age of seven.
During his youth Harper also developed an interest in horses. His parents owned a ranch outside of Los Angeles and his parents would often take him to various racetracks.
"Horses have been a big part of my life for years," he says. "My mom bred horses and we would always spend the weekends riding. In the mornings and afternoons my mom would take me to the track. During my childhood I knew all the people at the track. It was a very warm friendly place and I loved it as a kid. I went off to a boy's prep school in Arizona and ended up playing polo and riding rodeo when I was 16."
During his college years, Harper had a lot of fun but didn't have much success when it came to attending class. He says he was kicked out of several schools, including the University of Southern California, before deciding to take a job in the mailroom at the MGM Studios.
In the late 1960s, Harper found a trade he enjoyed in cinematography. He would produce promotional films, sports shows and documentaries, and eventually ended up working for Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, in 1966. He worked his way up the ranks until he served as executive vice president for the Oak Tree Racing Association.
In 1978, when former DMTC president/GM Don Smith was set to retire, friends referred Harper for the job. He is one of only several individuals that have run the track in its 64-year history. Harper says that's because it's not a job that many people want to leave. The track's first president was Hollywood legend Bing Crosby, who started the business in 1937 with a bunch of his celebrity friends.
Despite the fact that gambling is the DMTC's main draw, Harper states that the facility is a great place for people of all ages, especially kids.
"The atmosphere of our racetrack is very healthy for kids, which always surprises some people," he says. "You are talking about horses and people that love animals. You can go over to the backstretch in the morning and watch the horses work out. You can see them getting their baths. You can listen to the trainers and jockeys. It is a magnificent environment. There is the gambling aspect, that's how we survive. But there's also the pageantry of the sport, the people and the party. It is just a fun place to be."
Although other tracks on the Southern California racing circuit have seasons that run longer than 100 days, Harper believes that, with a 43-day season, less is more.
"Part of our strength is that we have a small meet," he says. "It keeps our averages up and keeps the excitement going. If you are going to have a party for 100 days, you are not going to get quite as many people interested. You lose something (with a long season). We may consider adding more days in the future, but they have to be the right days." For more information on the DMTC visit www.delmarracing.com.
Jeremy Martin is the newest member of the Doc's Sports family. A UNLV graduate, he served as editor-in-chief for the university's student newspaper and his work has been widely published in both print and online media.
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