Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Spinning out of control

Every sports fan loves a good giveaway. It’s like the sweet jelly filling of a fresh donut. But when people neglect the donut altogether and instead start demanding large vats of jelly to suck up, there’s something afoul.

That’s been increasingly the case at the New York Racing Association’s summer meet at the Saratoga Racecourse, which has a growing contingent of crazed fans that want nothing to do with either gambling or thoroughbred racing. Instead, these thrill seekers are in it for the blankets. Or bobble-head dolls, or any other kitschy trinket that can be mass-produced by some overseas sweatshop and doled out during a Sunday afternoon at the races.

Back in the day, the giveaways were simply a way to entice fans back to the track for some last minute weekend racing action, rather than beating the traffic exodus out of the Spa City at the crack of dawn each Sunday. Often, these items represented the end-of-the-day consolation prizes for dejected gamblers, as if NYRA itself was saying in a soothing voice, “sorry you lost last week’s paycheck on the ponies, here’s a cheep nylon blanket instead.”

But with the advent of eBay, the giveaways have become supplemental income for a host of greed-driven entrepreneurs, who buy multiple admissions to the track, then amass large stashes of these items for resale. These folks' hope is that the rest of the world will pay more than the $3-price-of-admission for a shoddy stop sign-red Saratoga Racecourse umbrella. And it must work for some, because the aptly dubbed “spinners” keep coming back for more.

Today, the giveaways have become akin to a feeding frenzy at the track. On such days, every inbound road within a 5-mile radius of the track becomes choked by these spinners. Inside, crazed hoards of people swamp boths stock with a handful of wayward track employees, who try in vain to maintain some semblance of order as the items are handed out. In anticipation of these freaks this year, NYRA even commissioned a “express line” for those not interested in waiting a half-hour while a gate attendant ticks off 30 redeemable tickets for some lunatic eBay auctioneer.

The media loves the giveaways too, gleefully reporting how many items are snatched up and thrown onto the online auction block, some even breaking down how much a potential “spinner” stands to gain from a quick trip up to the track. Anticipating these hackneyed stories next month, Capital News 9 didn’t even bother to mention the big news out of NYRA's conference Tuesday, save for this year’s giveaway dates. Keep up the good journalism, guys.

The truth amid all this knick-knack frivolity is that these giveaway days are inflating the attendance numbers at the track by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. This means NYRA likely has no real idea of the level of event attendance with any degree of accuracy. Not to mention, with most of the so-called sellout crowds on such days leaving the track immediately after receiving their giveaway, betting handles also go down, which for anyone familiar with organized gambling is not a good thing.

Suffice to say, these giveaways probably don’t cost much to produce, but they sure as hell aren’t free. And for a flailing, financially strapped organization like NYRA, this cost might be a lot more than the top brass really has a handle on, pun quite intended. Were they really interested saving money, the organization could merely limit the giveaways to one per person at the gate, no exceptions. If need be necessary, ink-stamp hands after they get their track hat.

Truth is, the vast majority of fans are quite content with one trinket, if any at all. Very few among the racing fan populous would bat as much of an eye were spinners abolished altogether. Getting rid of these nuisances, however, might also lift the smoke screen away from the attendance records NYRA has padded for the past six years or so, which might not be a good thing for an organization already facing a tough battle for the state’s heralded racing contract next winter.

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