Racing to Success: A Talk with Santa Anita Park’s Ron Charles
published in Horseman’s Digest (Dec 2007)
by Jenny Ortuoste
IT IS one of the most successful racing clubs in the world. While other jockey clubs in the country are shutting down, Santa Anita Park registers the highest record attendance and betting handle. Home to the world’s most active and vibrant jockey colony, it is a tourist draw and must-see for visitors to Arcadia, California.
But not too long ago, Santa Anita Park was, like many other racecourses in America, experiencing financial problems stemming from declining bettor interest. Erstwhile racing fans were shifting to other forms of entertainment. The racetrack was stuck in the doldrums and it seemed on the way to closure like so many others.
Then came Ron Charles. One of Santa Anita Park’s leading owners, and a founder of Thoroughbred Owners of America, he has been a racetrack regular since his childhood. His passion for the sport and interest in the workings of the industry, coupled with an optimistic energy and drive to see things done, saw him fulfill various roles within the industry that increased in importance and responsibility throughout the years, until in 1995, he became president and chief executive officer of Santa Anita Park.
That first year, he made a careful study of the racetrack’s internal conditions and came up with an aggressive strategic plan that he implemented immediately. It resulted in a 15% increase in sales and attendance; now, the company boasts the highest racing handle in the country.
Today Santa Anita is one of the racing world’s most admired racetracks, not only for the exciting racemeets they put on, but also for the business success that they have achieved.
When congratulated, Charles is modest. “The credit goes to my team. I was fortunate enough to hire the right people who understand the game.”
Charles flew to Manila upon the invitation of the Philippine Racing Club’s (PRC) Cua family to witness the November 18 12th MARHO Breeders’ Cup. PRC management also asked him to act a consultant on racing matters, with the objective of improving operations and other related strategies. This was not Charles’s first visit to the country; he has been here many times since 1994.
That MARHO Sunday, Charles looked comfortably ensconced in the VIP Room, conversing with a steady stream of friends – Aristeo “Putch” Puyat; Atty. Ramon “Dondon” Bagatsing Jr.; PRC Board of Directors member Jun Cua and EVP-COO Atty. Ramon Ereneta; while Sandy Javier called him from Keeneland where he was attending the thoroughbred sale. Charles hardly had a minute to himself as he amiably entertained everyone who approached.
Curious about this gentleman with the blond hair and the cool gray-green eyes, I sidled closer for a chat and found him to be impassioned. Fiery. Intelligent. This equine industry expert shows a deep and comprehensive grasp of the Philippine racing industry, gleaned from research and conversations with people from all sectors of the industry.
He says that racing and breeding in the Philippines has a great future. “The breeding industry has a tremendous opportunity to improve, to breed better horses. It needs to be upgraded, because the Philippines can provide horses to Hong Kong, Singapore.”
On racing, he sees “…an opportunity for horseowners from other countries to come here to race. In the US 90% of owners lose money, unlike here where 50-60% make money.”
However, he cites that racing’s major concern is “lack of inventory; the field size is diminishing. The field size is important to bettors.” It is practically axiomatic that the more horses there are in the race, the more chances there are for a longshot to appear and yield good dividends, encouraging enthusiastic wagering.
Charles also took note of societal factors that dampen the public’s enjoyment of racing. “One of the problems is that racing is seen strictly as gambling. No one has looked at the agricultural side, the entertainment and social side, job generation. We had a similar problem in California; what we did was create a different public opinion for racing by promoting the sport differently. The last Santa Anita Derby was attended by 56,000 people. The social side of the sport needs to be emphasized – you should be able to bring your girlfriend and family to the racetrack. That is why a facility needs to be clean and comfortable.”
He adds that improvements in the physical facilities, race operations, and handicapping should be supported by a well-planned marketing and advertising plan that would bring the sport to the positive attention of the mainstream.
There should be more attention to detail, he insists. Taking up a racing program, he goes over it feature by feature. “The information on the races should be easier to understand than this,” he says. “How about creating an abbreviated version of the Daily Racing Form?” He also suggests the re-establishment of the Win and Place bets which are the most popular wagers in other racing nations.
But how does the industry actually get from the realm of theory to the practical?
”What it needs is a united group to re-evaluate the industry, its position now, where it should be in five years.” Charles is very optimistic about Philippine racing’s future. “There is an opportunity to jumpstart the industry.” With his advice and assistance, positive changes could very well come soon. ***