Cammie Haughton was ecstatic as he drove over the George Washington Bridge on his way home from Yonkers around midnight Monday (Feb. 26). Bettors pumped $927,279 through the windows on that evening’s 12-race program, signaling to Haughton the changes he’s made since assuming the role of Director of Racing are paying off.
"When I go over the G.W. Bridge the other night doing almost $1 million, I was like, ‘yeah man, this is great! We’re almost there,’" Haughton exclaimed. "I was so happy, just thrilled to death. Who else does that? Who else is happy to do that for racing? I’m happy with the position I got and I’m happy to help. Things are working."
In his new role, Haughton’s primary mission is to increase handle on the track’s races. His daily routine that involves working with the broadcast department, executive office, race office, and the horsemen before presiding over the scheduling of races in the evening means he has a hand in nearly everything that goes on at the track.
"When I leave there at night, my head is spinning. But here it is on my day off and I’m thinking about all this, but you have to," Haughton said. "That’s the thing, I do care. I’m not the guy to just sit around and not do anything. I’m on it, I’m on it big time."
Thus far, his initiatives are producing results. Domestic and international commingled handle at Yonkers from Jan. 1 through Feb. 28 topped $29.2 million on 424 races, a 64.2 percent increase from the $17.8 million bet on 419 contests over the same period last year.
Just over two months into his tenure in his new role, Haughton is already making a reputation for himself as someone who gets things done. He cited the driver’s room at the track as an example. The room was in disrepair when he found it, but will soon get a needed facelift.
"The tiles are coming up off the floor, it needs to be painted, the lockers all need to be emptied and cleaned. So, guess what? I got it done," Haughton said. "I got the brand-new floor ordered, I got the painters, I talked to the horsemen, we’re ready to get the lockers emptied and moved. We’re going to have a new locker room here in a couple weeks. You have to do those things, you have to."
While it may seem arbitrary to the racing product, completing projects like this are part of Haughton’s mission to leave no stone unturned. He describes his strategy as a back to basics approach that focuses on making common-sense improvements to deliver the best racing product possible to the gambling public. He formed his strategy in the months leading up to commencing his term as Director of Racing when he put himself in the customers’ shoes.
"Before I got my job, I sat and observed the races for two months. I knew I was going to be Director of Racing, but I didn’t have the job yet," Haughton recalled. "So, I was observing and writing down all these things that needed to be done on a pad and a piece of paper."
Haughton noted a lack of racing action, poor scheduling of post times, and the live broadcast as areas in need of major improvement. Beyond simply identifying the problems, he began working to solve them immediately. His first stop was a meeting with the drivers where he laid out his plans and sought their support.
"I told them the wolves will be at our door if we don’t start turning this thing around," Haughton said. "I told them basically, ‘look, if you don’t like what I’m going to be doing, first of all, it’s for your benefit -- the drivers and the trainers and the horsemen, it’s for everybody’s benefit. If you don’t like what I’m doing here, go race somewhere else.’ All the drivers are cooperating 100 percent with what’s going on."
Haughton cites the support of the Yonkers horsemen and the Standardbred Owners Association of New York as a critical component of his ability to make changes at the track. He sees them as partners in his mission to improve the racing, not as resistors who want to keep the status quo.
"They want change, I can see, and they want a better product," Haughton remarked. "I feel that when they see me walk in the paddock and I’m dressed in a tie and a jacket, very professional, that’s how I was brought up in my family, I think they kind of like that, that somebody’s watching the ship now.
"They’re willing to do whatever it takes and it’s working," he continued. "I’m very thrilled with the cooperation of the SOA, the cooperation of the management, and everybody around me wants to help."
With the horsemen on his side and aware of his expectations, Haughton stunned the harness racing world when he announced his next move: the removal of the passing lane from Yonkers’ half-mile racetrack.
"They either pull or they get locked in. It’s called racing," Haughton said. "With the passing lane, the first five horses would go around the track and they would know that when you get to the stretch, it’s a lot easier. So, they sit, and they sit, and they sit. That’s not racing to me. They’re racing now."
Without the passing lane, the percentage of winning favorites at Yonkers through the end of February was 37.7 percent, a 10.2 percent decrease from the 42 percent strike rate of favorites over the same period in 2017.
While detractors protested the move, citing concerns that bettors would lose chances to cash if their horses lacked racing room in the stretch, Haughton takes another argument. When he considered the point from the bettors’ perspective, he saw increased opportunities for trip handicappers to find value.
"I saw a horse locked in the other night that had all kinds of pace in the stretch and obviously, he couldn’t get through," Haughton said. "Here’s a gambler who’s playing Yonkers Raceway, that puts it in his mind that number four was locked in last week and couldn’t get out. He’s going to bet that horse the following week. He’s going to follow that horse and know that he had pace in the stretch and couldn’t get out."
Although the removal of the passing lane is the most glaring change Haughton has made, he thinks other initiatives have been just as important in increasing handle. Proper scheduling of post times has had the biggest impact on betting volume than any other change, he claims.
"Scheduling the times is very, very important. That is the most important," Haughton said.
The scheduling of post times involves two components. First, he ensures post parades are scheduled to give bettors ample time to evaluate the horses as a physical specimen before placing a wager. Second, Haughton aims to make sure Yonkers’ races go off between other major racetracks to avoid conflicts.
"It was blowing my mind, the horses coming out onto the racetrack for two minutes and going right to the gate," he said. "How do you get money in the pools if they’re out there for two minutes and go right to the gate? You can’t do it. It’s impossible."
Haughton’s efforts to coordinate post times has already spurred increased communication and cooperation from other racetracks, the historical lack of which has been a constant gripe of gamblers playing multiple racetracks for years.
"The other racetracks, they’re even calling me now. ‘Can you slow down a little bit because we have 15 races, you have 12 and we’re trying to go in between and it’s getting late for us.’ Then I have to make a decision," Haughton said.
Haughton’s choice to keep horses on the track longer before the start plays off one of his other initiatives, to improve the quality of Yonkers’ simulcast presentation. One of his primary areas of focus thus far has been to ensure each horse gets a clear, close up camera shot before the race. Haughton understands the vast majority of his customers aren’t at the track. Rather than fight this, he is catering to these players’ needs.
"It’s not like it was years ago when 20,000 people were coming out for racing. There’s basically nobody at the tracks now, it’s all coming in from simulcast," he said. "I told every operator that runs these cameras, ‘I want close ups on these guys. I don’t want these horses looking like ants on a screen.’ It’s better for the people who are sitting home watching the races."
Haughton isn’t finished tweaking the product at Yonkers. As the year goes on, he will look to make more changes. He teased increased improvements to the broadcast as one of the changes to look out for.
"The good weather is coming. I’m going to throw a camera on top of the paddock, on the roof. We’ve got that in motion," he explained. "As soon as the good weather comes on a Friday or Saturday night, I’m going to have a camera up there. Close up shots as they come around the final turn. Like NASCAR, they have cameras everywhere. You’ve got to change it up."
Haughton has also been pleased with the initiative of offering free full card past performances on Monday evenings, an initiative undertaken in cooperation with the SOA of NY. He hopes to see that promotion expanded to include additional nights in the future.
"That’s fantastic. That’s another thing that we have to get up on our broadcast and show," he said. "Here’s the thing, if you don’t promote it and get on it and get it out there, nothing’s going to happen."
Other possible future initiatives include increased field sizes, a reworking of the racing classifications and the racing schedule, and a slanted starting gate to aid the chances of outside horses. While these are still in the early planning phases, Haughton notes he has plenty of time to forge ahead with them.
"I love the starting gate idea, I love it," he said. "I think it’s going to happen. Right now, our handle is up, racing is never better, the track seems to be very, very good as far as the surface. Things are good. Now if they keep going in the good way, maybe that starting gate will come.
"Here’s the thing," he continued. "We’ve got the eyes on us now at Yonkers Raceway and I want to keep that. Now I just need to keep the interest in what we’re doing."
Yonkers Raceway races on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday basis with a first post time of 6:50 p.m. For a complete racing schedule, click here. For a schedule of upcoming stakes races, including the Petticoat Series, Sagamore Hill Series, YR/SOA of NY Bonus Trotting Series, Matchmaker Series, and Levy Series, click here.--By Brandon Valvo/SOA New York