A lot of folks are questioning this week’s announcement that the New York Racing Association is planning to increase admissions prices for Belmont Park and Saratoga. Saratoga is one of racing’s jewels, but an expanded meeting and more mediocre races than ever have diluted the magic – attendance was down this year despite the extra publicity of its 150th anniversary. And as much as I love Belmont Park, it was built for another era and now can only achieve a decent crowd one day a year. A few thousand in attendance, all it can muster most days, and the place looks like a ghost town. Does it really sound like there’s an opportunity to increase revenues by raising admission prices at both tracks?


Racing is unique among both sporting venues and gambling venues. At other sporting venues, there is no gambling on the premises; they rely on admissions and concessions revenues so ticket prices are high. Casinos, on the other hand, rely on gambling revenues. Admission and parking is almost always free; gamblers don’t have to spend money for the opportunity to lose even more money. And food and beverage costs have historically been held low (although that has changed somewhat with more emphasis on high-end restaurants and non-gaming revenues).


Racetracks are a different breed entirely. They have tried to generate revenue from admissions, parking and concessions while at the same time depending primarily on the pari-mutuel commission (net revenue from gambling). Players pay, sometimes dearly, for the privilege of betting, since they also have to buy a program and/or Daily Racing Form. In the early years, the model worked.


But times change. Many racetracks figured out that charging for admission and parking was counter-productive in an era where it was just as easy for a player to stay home and wager via computer, or to visit a nearby casino as those facilities exploded into markets across the country. Even before slot machines entered the picture at tracks, many eliminated admission and parking fees. Today, almost all tracks with casino activities offer free admission and parking; many without gaming also offer at least one level of free admission and/or parking.


NYRA president Christopher Kay said that raising admission prices at Belmont and Saratoga to $5 for grandstand and $8 for clubhouse brings them in line with other tracks that still charge admission. Really? Let’s take a look. By far the highest charges in the country are at California’s racetracks. And guess what, that’s where the industry is struggling mightily – yet another track will close at the end of this year. Coincidence?


Santa Anita charges $5 for grandstand admission, $10 for the clubhouse and $4 for parking. Betfair Hollywood Park, currently operating its final race meeting, charges $10 for general admission, but at least you get parking and a program when you fork over that fee. Del Mar rakes it in on parking – you pay $10 for that privilege. And you still have to pay $6 to get into the grandstand and $10 for the clubhouse, but you get a program in the bargain. Golden Gate Fields charges $6 for the grandstand, $8 for the clubhouse and $4 for parking, but has $1 Sundays with reduced prices on everything.


Elsewhere, tracks still charging admission usually range in the $2 to $5 range and most of those offer at least one level of free parking. The most expensive places to get into the gate outside of California appear to be Monmouth Park in New Jersey, with a $3 grandstand admission ($5 clubhouse) coupled with a minimum $4 parking charge, and Emerald Downs in Washington, with a $7 general admission (discounted to $5 for members of the track's rewards club) and free parking. Keeneland, a very special place in the heart of horse country, has a $5 general admission charge and free parking. Although my research was certainly not exhaustive, it appears that at virtually all other tracks, it costs less than $5 to get into the gate – sometimes much less.


And remember, rarely does a racetrack admission fee include a guaranteed seat, although with today’s sparsely-attended events, “free” seats are easy to come by unless you want a premium location. And you’ll pay more for that privilege – sometimes a lot more.


I’ll leave it to you. Do these examples really support NYRA’s proposal to increase admissions prices based on what other tracks are doing?