Home » Racing & Sport » Opinion » Breaking Bread

Breaking Bread

Black Caviar has been steadily galloping her way into the public hearts, minds and media and with a decisive victory in last weekend’s C F Orr Stakes, she now has a total of 18 back to back victories under her belt.  Isn’t that just amazing?

Aussie website Punters Paradise says that ‘The best way to watch Black Caviar is at the track. Nothing beats the thrill of being at the track and soaking up the atmosphere as Black Caviar goes about her winning ways’.  And judging by the bumper crowd that showed up at Caulfield race track last Saturday, it seems the public agrees.  Reports put the estimated crowd at around 20,000.  Which just goes to show that if you have the right bait, the public will bite.

We saw this in action locally with the Cape Flying Championship, when the prospect of Val De Ra going head to head with What A Winter and J J The Jet Plane proved too good an opportunity to pass up and brought out what looked, from the ground anyway, one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen at a ‘normal’ race day meet in recent memory.

So why is it then that on a bog standard Saturday afternoon, the race course lies empty when the off course tote just a few hundred metres away seems to be swarming with custom?

I have noticed that punters will occasionally make the short walk from the tote to the course to go and watch a specific race and then make their way back to the tote again afterwards.  So it seems that the horse being the draw card still holds true.  Why then, do the punters not stay ?

Like most off course totes, the Kenilworth one is not the cleanest or tidiest place in the world and doesn’t offer anything out of the ordinary in terms of facilities, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that.  Still, it puzzled me.  Until I turned the problem around a little and tried to work out what the race course was doing to encourage them to stay. Hmm.

It is worth bearing in mind that aswe do not supply a tangible product, we fall more or less, into the entertainment industry.  If we want people’s money, we need to provide a service or some reasonable exchange for their hard earned cash.  People want an experience.  But unfortunately the disparity between what they’re looking for and what they get is still far too wide.

Rose tinted spectacles

I get told off for always going on about ‘the good old days’ as though things were perfect back then (I know they weren’t), but there was at least a modicum of understanding that if you wanted customers, and more importantly, wanted them to come back on a regular basis, you had to give them a reason to do so.

If you were down on the ground, facilities were clean and the course was strictly monitored and managed by those lovely old gentlemen in the military outfits (they lent such a sense of occasion, didn’t they?).  Food wasn’t 5 star, but it was affordable (mostly simple pies or burger and chips type stuff) and you could have a reasonable day out without feeling as though you were being ripped off from beginning to end.  And most importantly, there was a crowd, there was an atmosphere and you were given an experience.

Even the upstairs areas had a whole different atmosphere.  My sister did a stint in the catering department.  Staff had to arrive hours ahead of time to lay out the linen, fill the condiment cellars and ensure everything was perfect for the first guests.  Reinhard Scheer (with apologies if I’ve murdered the spelling) ruled the kitchen with an iron fist.  Staff were drilled to ensure that they did everything possible to ensure that the patrons were taken care of.

And because you looked after the guests (who are after all, the customers), the race course looked after you.  Yes, you worked hard, but there was always a lunch break and a meal allowance to ensure everyone had a short break and something to eat and drink.

The Earle of Sandwich

My weekend job was as an on-course camera person.  Apart from the thrill of spending my entire day looking at lovely horses (and being paid for the privilege!!), I was an important part of the machinery that made the day work.  Yes, it could be hard work – occasionally too hot or too cold, but we loved it.  We had to arrive early for our team meeting, were dispatched to our various posts for the day and had a team debrief again after the races.  Sandwiches were supplied and first Joe and later Heather made sure that everyone had a lunch break and that we were all looked after and taken care of.  And those quick breaks afforded the opportunity for a rest, a chat and a quick check what was happening on course and how everyone was getting on.

The same applied to the jockeys and the trainers who, back in those days, were also supplied with sandwiches, coffees and cold drinks to help them through the day.  There was in fact a bit of a rivalry between the clubs and the groups would occasionally leverage the service they got at one course to negotiate better sandwiches, drinks, etc at the other.  It was a small service that made everyone feel looked after and part of the family and in return you could generally rely on the staff on the ground to be friendly and helpful to the customers.  Staff were treated as a part of the team and we behaved accordingly.

These days, the people who have to be on course for the day either bring their own lunch or alternatively pop over to the local service station for a bite to eat or something cold to drink as they feel the on-course service and prices are just not good value.  I did a quick survey and compared prices at a posh Spar in De Waterkant, a roadside Pick & Pay quick shop and an air-conditioned boutique Italian coffee shop and thought you might like to know what I found.

The posh Spar charges R8.50 for a 500ml Coke.  The road side Pick & Pay charges R9.99 and my lovely little coffee shop charges R14.  A sandwich will set you back anywhere from R15.99 to R49, depending on whether you like cheese & tomato on white or an exotic ciabatta.  Coffee will cost you roughly R12 for an Americano or R15 if you want a freshly ground, freshly frothed Cappuccino.  A local internet café charges R2 for a cup of coffee and you can have as many as you like.  It makes for an interesting exercise to compare these with what is on offer at the track.

Handsome Is as Handsome Does

Anyone who spends any time with horses will know that they learn things (particularly bad habits) very fast.  But what’s important to remember is that they don’t just suddenly start behaving badly out of the blue – a habit is usually acquired or inadvertently taught somehow.  Those with an interest in behavioral or remedial work will know that you can usually trace a behavior back to a past experience.  A head shy horse might have been ear-twitched or hit in the face at some point, a pony that bites may have been fed too many treats by hand.  And once you’ve been around horses for a while, behavioural patterns start emerging and those patterns usually give you a pretty good idea as to their cause.  However, the good news is that if you can work out what caused the behavior in the first place, you can usually work out a way to correct it.

Customer Interface

Those of you who work in any sort of service industry know that if you don’t look after your staff, they don’t look after your customers.  The guys on the gate, manning the totes, the bars and waiting the tables are our main customer interfaces and it is so important to start with them and ensure that they are happy so that they want to make our customers happy.  At the moment that simply isn’t happening.  From a customer point of view, there are a few familiar faces that will give me a smile or a hello these days, but that’s mostly because I’ve invested some time and effort to smile, say hello and have a quick chat to the people I see on a regular basis.  But for the most part the service is pretty indifferent.  And having a curious nature and an interest in cause and effect I wonder whether that might not be because staff do not feel part of the team anymore.  Could this all be about the sandwiches?

Breaking Bread

There is a reason that sharing a meal is still such an integral part of our culture.  It is a gesture of acceptance and inclusion and sitting around a table together affords an opportunity to communicate on an even footing.  All issues that our industry seems to be struggling with at the moment.

I’m not saying that a sandwich is the answer to all our problems, but it appears there is still a lot of value in a simple sarmie.