All Aboard - by Dan Liebman

After viewing a study conducted for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the organization’s senior vice president of communications and industry relations, Keith Chamblin, had this to say: “Our core fans are pissed.”

It is good that Chamblin did not mince words. This is not a time for sugar-coating the state of the Thoroughbred industry.

Oftentimes, organizations, including the NTRA, are accused of spinning the news. Oftentimes, those accusations are well-founded.

But there is no spin in the words, “Our core fans are pissed.”

Performed by SocialSphere Strategies, the study was commissioned by the NTRA. On its Web site, SocialSphere Strategies claims to be “helping Thoroughbred racing go from zero-to-sixty in Web 2.0.”

Since most racetracks and racing organizations had no Web 1.0 vision, SocialSphere Strategies and its founder, John Della Volpe, are talking about a quantum leap for the majority of horse players and racing officials.

From July 2-10, SocialSphere Strategies conducted interviews with about 600 core fans, 180 industry participants, and 1,200 sports fans. The company’s “confidential and proprietary report” led Chamblin to his comments.

“They are very upset with us, and the intensity of their responses is very alarming to say the least,” Chamblin told Tom LaMarra of The Blood-Horse.

SocialSphere Strategies has only recently become involved with Thoroughbred racing, but it has a firm grasp of the situation. Also on its Web site:

• Situation: The “Sport of Kings” has an aging fan base, currently limited appeal to emerging generations, and perceived integrity problems.

• Problem: Limited marketing budget, television availability, and fractured industry segment make wide-scale change difficult.

• Solution: SocialSphere created and executed Web 2.0 strategy for the industry, local racetracks, and other stakeholder groups. Our efforts included a social media audit, a blog strategy, and e-mail marketing optimization, with more to come.

Core fans, those whose handle we depend on, are concerned about drug use in horses and wagering security. Casual fans, thanks to the mainstream press blowing the breakdown of Eight Belles out of proportion, are more concerned with safety issues.

Progress is being seen in the area of medication, with many states now banning the use of most anabolic steroids. The next step should be to address cortisone, which is more harmful in masking pain. Wagering issues continue to plague the industry, with stories of past-posting and the “quick-picks” debacle in California among the latest examples of lapses.

Safety and integrity issues are also being addressed, but it is proving hard to gain a consensus on such controversial and debatable topics as synthetic surfaces, breeding practices, and the care of retired racehorses.

The NTRA has been holding meetings with officials from various organizations and racetracks to address and discuss the issues facing the sport of Thoroughbred racing. On Oct. 15, it will unveil its Safety and Integrity Initiative. NTRA CEO Alex Waldrop said he expects widespread industry support, but support is only the beginning. There is implementation, and most importantly of all, the question of how much things cost and who will foot the bill.

Horse racing has a long and storied history. But it stands at a crossroads. Waldrop says the industry “is going to change.” In fact, it must change.

Waldrop said, “the train leaves the station” Oct. 15. The entire industry better be on board, or we will be left sitting on the platform, wondering where our fans have gone. 

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