Monday, April 14, 2008

Running Aces Harness Park

This weekend was opening weekend at Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus, MN. You may recall that GRS was thinking about purchasing a harness horse to race here in the inaugural season, but we decided against it based upon the current purse structure. I did decide to take a ride up there tonight (Monday, April 14) and see how things were going. What I found was a a combination of very good things and some things that I feel could be improved upon. This is, of course, only one man's opinion and overall, my impression was very favorable.

Parking and admission are free - which is a very nice touch. One thing I do wonder about and will ask when I have the opportunity, is why the 6PM nightly post (Sundays is 3)? I left work at 5 and went by the house to change up my clothes. Work is only 5 minutes away from my house, but by the time I changed and headed out to the the track is was 5:30 so by the time I arrived it was post time for the second race. I live on the east side of the Metro and I don't think it would be unusual for Running Aces to want to draw from there or, especially, the population centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul. However, when you're running only 8 races a night, horse players will think twice about coming up there after work when they know they'll miss at least one, maybe two races on the short card. In my view, a 7 PM first post would make more sense - at least 6:30 if you were really intent upon trying to capture a dinner crowd or, as I suspect, trying to draw simlucast action from the larger East Coast tracks.

As you can see above, the physical plant is nice. The first thing that struck me, however, was that Running Aces is going to be a card club first and a harness track second. The area where the card room is going to be is large and well constructed. There are plenty of TVs strategically placed around the area and there is certainly room for slot machines, which parent company Southwest Casinos must want at some point (as an aside, the Tribal lobby here in MN is very strong and I don't see either track ever getting slots, but I digress). The interior has a decidely casino feel to it, which in some ways is nice: the area set aside for live racing fans is carpeted and loaded with new flat screen TVs; the restaurant lends a touch of elegance to racetrack dining with tablecloths and unobstructed views of the track. But the interior area for racing patrons is small. I can see where, on a busy Saturday, if incliment weather rolls in it is going to become very crowded.

The personal touch is a mixed bag as well. When you first come into the property there are greeters and an information kiosk selling programs. The ladies manning the booth were very friendly and open. There were a couple of ladies that walked amongst the patrons selling programs and helping the patrons use the automated kiosks. This is where things, for me, broke down a little. I like betting at a window with a teller. I like the interaction and the banter that can occur between patron and ticket writer. It's nice to find your 'lucky window' and visit it over and over again to play into your racetracker's superstitions. However there were very few windows compared to the dozens of automated machines. The machines were some of the most sophisticated I have seen, had tremendous clarity and were very intutive. While cheaper than human writers, I think they missed a chance to interact more with their public. The two writers I did use weren't as friendly as the greeters were. When I went to go cash a ticket, one guy just threw up his hands and said, "Hey, I'm closed, sir!" - as if by closing he had beat me in some kind of game. A "Sir, I'm sorry, I've shut my window down but she'll be happy to take your ticket." would have played much better. The girl I did cash my ticket with seemed entirely uninterested in my being there. No greeting, just counted out my $107.50 with not even a smile. I resisted the temptation to hold back and went ahead and tipped her the $2.50 anyhow. That did seem to perk her up, but it was too little, too late. This was in decided contrast to the ladies manning the snack bar near the apron. Gregarious and friendly, it was service with a smile. The cheese pizza looked a little overdone and they didn't serve bottled water, but their cheerfulness more than made up for it and the hotdog was very good. I would have, however, moved the condiments to their own stand near a trash can. I felt hurried trying to put mustard on my dog and, silly as this sounds, there was very little clearance between the nozzle and my hot dog. Silly, I know, but I think it matters.

The simulcast area was a mixed bag to me as well. The player's cubbies are tremendously appointed with self service ticket machines in each cube. The many flat screen TVs provide an excellent picture, but as they were set up in a grid-like fashion, it made me wonder how easy it would be to follow all the races when a dozen tracks are running and the screens are set right next to and on top of each other. Tonight only Northfield was running, so it was maily the live card being shown. I think a little more spacing would have been in order there with maybe LED signs over each screen that could be programmed to show the name of the track being shown underneath it. While the area is beautiful (it is in the bar area of the restaurant and has more of a Vegas lounge flavor than an OTB - which is a good thing), the three rows of simulcast seating are very close and make it a tough fit if you're getting up and have a middle seat. The benefit of having a personal betting terminal evaporates when most of the desk area is taken up by it. A little more spacing there may have been in order as well.

The track the apron is one of the best I've seen with many chairs and all weather cocktail tables for patrons. The wrought iron railing is right up against the wide track and brings you closer to the action that you can hope to get anywhere. Another great touch is that the track is recessed about a foot below the apron giving you the best view possible of the racing. Outside of the restaurant there were many outdoor tables and, though it was hard to tell if they were only for restaurant use or not tonight, if they are open to the public, it is a great touch. The turns are nicely banked and the tote board fits the infield well. The infield itself is still a work in progress, but has a lot of potential to become a mirror of the Minnesota wetlands that we are so pround of here.

The racing and wagering opportunities were a yet another mixed bag. There are a lot of Fair quality horses that are finding the going harder aginst seasoned pros from Illinois and Ohio. This produced some nice wagering opportunities, but with the pools being so small, it was hard to gauge the value you were receiving. In one race my choice went from 12-1 to 5-2 to 8-5 to finally settling at 4-1 all with the tote board showing less than one minute to post. I have to admit, I was much happier getting 4-1 than the 5-2 I thought I would get, but being able to tell an overlay from an underlay is very important to a horseplayer and that is all but impossible right now. I bet cautiously, not knowing what to expect from trainers and drivers but was able to make a nice profit betting 5 of the 8 races, hitting 2 winners, two perfectas (as they call the exacta) and a trifecta.

A random observation, and a very nice touch, were two large murals on each flanking wall as you enter the property - one of the legendary Dan Patch who made a name for himself here in Minnesota (among other places) and the other a take-off of a Saturday Evening Post cover. It shows a harness horse in full flight in an old-style sulky (circa 1937) with the headline "Harness Racing Comes to Columbus" with the magazine titled The Columbus Evening Post.

Track announcer, British import Craig Braddick, was colorful and engaging. Many of his terms (winner's post, punters, etc.) may be unfamiliar to his crowd, but his race calling was fun and fit nicely with the image I think the track is trying to project: a fun night at the races. Even between races he could be seen engaged in banter with the crowd below. He is even a pretty good handicapper and is shaping up to be a great ambassador for the track.

Unlike some of their Thoroughbred cousins, this harness track is down to Earth and most definitely reaching out to the casual fans. The question is if there is enough there to make the more serious horseplayer want to reach into his pocket and, most importantly, come back to the track. Canterbury Park has done a nice job of mixing old school horse racing with innnovative promotion and a fun atmosphere. The jury is still out on whether Running Aces can make racing fans out of people or if a few racing dates are just a sidebar to the card room. Time will tell and I am hoping that the racing comes out a winner.

1 comment:

PEM said...

From Keeneland to a jughead track has to be a culture shock. I have to admit-Keeneland is kind of the "anti-Saratoga"--prices are fair-from food to lodging-people are just so nice -place is spotless-too bad I hate polytrack like poison and I truly despise the fact they ruined the speed favoring track that generated so many winner for me at Churchill. Love the place-love the computers/the chicklets/the people---hate the racing so much.