Step into Scioto Downs, and at first glance, you might think youve traveled back in time. Fans view the races from a 1959 grandstand; in fact, the newest building on the site is the penthouse, which is more than 25 years old.
A 1976 Cadillac lumbers along the track as the start car for the horses.
And the assistant race secretary watches the action with binoculars in her role as clerk of course, using a tape recorder to note the position of horses during each race.
Dont be fooled. A behind-the-scenes look reveals an operation run with technology that:
- Brings in a diverse audience with simulcasting via satellite.
- Provides customer service with computerized betting.
- Assures accurate race results through television recording.
- Keeps off-site customers in touch via the World Wide Web and a call-in phone system for results.
Racings all of a sudden getting very up to speed on a lot of things other sports have already been into, says Anne Doolin, director of publicity and marketing.
Heres how technology keeps Scioto Downs on track.
A broader customer base
In 1959, Scioto Downs opened on Route 23, about two miles south of I-270. Nearly four decades later, in 1997, the track began offering patrons another option: viewing and wagering on other harness and thoroughbred races across the United States.
Simulcasting the transmission of other races to television screens at Scioto Downs via satellite brings fans race coverage from an additional 13 tracks during the day and 12 more at night. Simulcasting is available seven days a week, and gates open at noon instead of just before the evening post time for the live races.
The additional coverage enables Scioto Downs to satisfy more customers than it can with its own nightly offering of 10 to 13 races.
In the past, we were open for live racing, and they could only bet on harness racing here, Doolin says. Now, the thoroughbred fan who doesnt understand or want to learn about harness racing can bet on thoroughbred races all over the United States.
Scioto Downs races also are simulcast to more than 20 primary locations, with dozens more satellite facilities.
Simulcasting helps Scioto Downs in the long run. As other race tracks and outlets take Sciotos signal, more people bet on the races. That means more money is added to the pool at Scioto, making the betting more attractive. Simulcasting has the same effect on races elsewhere, Doolin says. Its sort of a snowball effect.
Technology coordinates the wagering for all the races. An electronic system by AmTote International, run for Scioto Downs out of a Grove City office, allows fans to bet with the same odds and the same payoffs as if they were at those other tracks. It also keeps track of the live betting at Scioto Downs.
Its hard to get an accurate count of how all these changes have affected attendance, Doolin says, because admission is not charged around the clock. Even though evening attendance is lower now, overall attendance is up.
The handle, or total amount bet, really tells the story. In 1996, before simulcasting was added, about $37.5 million was bet annually at Scioto Downs. In 1997, simulcastings first season, that figure exceeded $53 million; 1998s total was about $56.1 million.
In June, Scioto Downs made a move to reach yet another audience television viewers outside the Columbus area when it signed on with The Racing Network, which broadcasts racing via satellite to subscribers all over North America. The direct satellite-to-home service offers more than 20 harness racing tracks and 25 thoroughbred tracks in North America, as well as some from Australia and England.
Already, the track was reaching local viewers with Scioto Downs Spotlight, a monthly half-hour feature show airing on cable in the Columbus area.
Customer service and quality assurance
Technology also helps Scioto Downs better serve its customers. Self-bet machines, added approximately eight years ago, allow race fans to place their own wagers rather than using betting windows at the track.
A lot of people like the privacy of using that rather than saying it to somebody, Doolin says, noting that use of the self-bet machines has increased approximately 25 percent since simulcasting was added.
For the 1997 racing season, Scioto Downs Web site, www.sciotodowns.com, was up and running. Race fans can view results from the local track, updated about every third race.
I can tell people are using it, Doolin says, because if the interns are late posting results, I get hate e-mail.
The Web site includes general information about the track, drivers, trainers, statistics and schedules. It also helps the horsemen, who can check the Internet site before calling in their choice of race.
Another way Scioto Downs keeps fans updated is through a results hotline. Four phone lines hooked into a computer give outcomes of each race, designated by mailbox numbers in a voice mail system. The lines are used by horse owners and by fans who placed bets but did not attend the race.
Often at night, its hard to get in, Doolin says. At 7:46, by God, they keep calling for the first [race results]. Late at night, you have to keep trying, trying, trying until somebody hangs up and you slip in.
Technology also helps the race judges. Three cameras, all with different angles, record the races, viewed by the judges on television sets. The races are recorded for use in case of appeals.
Doolin says changes in the race bikes, which carry the jockeys behind the horses in harness racing, as well as veterinary care, nutrition and supplements for the horses are just as trendy as the technology changes that help run Scioto Downs, but the human factor remains.
The interaction between people and horses requires time, care and attention, she says. Thats something technologys never going to change, thank God.
Joan Slattery Wall (email@example.com)is a reporter for SBN.