THE DARK DAY FILES: Lessons from a Day Trip to Lake Tahoe

On my day off Monday, I drove three hours each way to watch horse racing on television.

Before anyone calls me an idiot (in some cases, again), I suppose I should explain. You see, I had casino loyalty points that were going to expire in mid-September, and rather than start from scratch, I opted to make my maiden voyage from my home in northern California to Lake Tahoe.

I make a few trips every year to Las Vegas, and there are some similarities between the journeys to the two Nevada locales. When I lived in Los Angeles, it took between three and a half and four hours to get to Sin City by car, and it’s a similar-length drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe. Additionally, there are agricultural inspection stops on both trips back that do nothing but inconvenience roughly 97% of motorists passing through.

However, that’s about where the similarities end. First, the drive from LA to Vegas is best known as a kind of competition. Everyone has a time they’re trying to beat (my personal best from Pasadena to a Vegas hotel is 3 hours, 32 minutes, and that’s without driving recklessly or hitting traffic), and everyone has a small town along the way they prefer to stop in for gas, food, or bathroom breaks (mine is Baker, which boasts a population of 735 people and, more importantly, an Arby’s).

The drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe is anything but a competition. The last road one takes to get there is Route 50, which is mostly a two-lane road with intermittent passing lanes scattered about on the trek through the Eldorado National Forest. In other words, the trip could take anywhere from two and a half hours if you don’t hit traffic to four hours if you’re unlucky enough to follow huge trucks down that road with a peloton of your closest friends also in pursuit. I got there in three hours with a quick stop in Folsom (not at the prison), and the trip home took four with a dinner break in Vacaville.

Having said that, though, if you’re traveling during the day, you probably don’t want to hurry. Route 50 is one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the United States, and there are several improvised spots to pull over for photographs. Once you wind your way through the forest, you come out in the rare kind of ski village that also thrives during the summer.

Of course, if you’re in the neighborhood to gamble, that’s prominently catered to as well. In fact, once you weave through the village and get to the state line, two casinos greet you. Harrah’s is on one side of the street, Harvey’s is on the other, and they sit literally inches beyond the California/Nevada border.

As one can expect, both places weren’t exactly bustling with activity at 9:15 on a Monday morning. As the day went on, though, I noticed a theme. Unlike Las Vegas, which thrives on providing sensory overload at all times, Lake Tahoe provides a relaxing environment that struck me as incredibly refreshing. The race book was quiet, with jovial tellers and wait staff. The casino floor had outgoing dealers, and each table had open seats and low minimums. Las Vegas is a wonderful place, but between the crowds and the elevated minimums at busy times, there are some circumstances that give gamblers major headaches.

Those didn’t exist Monday in Lake Tahoe. Instead, what I saw were fun atmospheres with people having a great time. Horse racing types, take note: Gamblers don’t necessarily mind losing if external factors provide some bang for their buck. It wasn’t Vegas, but it didn’t have to be.

I spent most of the day in the race book at Harvey’s, and for the last two races on Saratoga’s Monday program, I spent time chatting with a group of maybe five or six people. We all wound up on the same horse in the finale, first-time starter Surge of Pride. The Linda Rice trainee won on debut at odds of 7/2, and we were all pretty fired up as we headed to the windows (which, by the way, boasted no lines the entire day) to cash our winning tickets.

To tie all of this together: I’ve used this space a lot over the past few months to advocate for fan education, which I believe makes for a more attractive gambling product. Fans that feel comfortable with the product bet more, and they’re much more likely to recommend what they do to friends who are curious. Judging by what I see on Twitter on a daily basis, we have a large portion of the racing fan base that would not recommend the sport to those close to them, and that’s a problem that must be fixed (Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, are you listening?).

It’s great to provide all sorts of data to fans and handicappers, and if that leads to betting action, then a large part of the mission has been accomplished. That’s a large part of what I do for a living, and I hope I’m doing a decent job of that. However, what also works is to provide an atmosphere people feel comfortable in. We can produce that in really simple ways. We can fix timing issues that should not exist in 2018, both with the scheduling of races at different tracks and the times of those races themselves. We can test proposed rule changes by asking if novices would understand explanations of said changes made in 15 seconds or less. We can find ways to legitimately grow the game by marketing to the people who keep it going with steady action, as opposed to those who come to the track once or twice a year and don’t put money through the windows.

Nevada, of course, also has legalized sports betting, and that’s the elephant in the room. When sports betting becomes widely legalized, we need to present the best wagering product imaginable in order to stay competitive. There are steps we can take right now that aren’t huge ones. It’s my hope that we take them, improve the gambling atmosphere in this sport, and give horse racing an improved foundation moving forward.

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