by Evan Hammonds
Some of the elements in selling the great sport of Thoroughbred racing revolve around nostalgia, social networking, the allure of the track, and new initiatives and technologies.
Positioning the nostalgia and the rich history of the sport is easy. The track can be a place where one can look back in the rear-view mirror; the ghosts are all around. There's Man o' War; Seabiscuit; Citation; Secretariat's 31-length Belmont (gr. I) win; Affirmed and Alydar.
Social networking is the old standby with a new name. People get into racing through social networking with a Facebook approach, not through mass marketing. Potential fans need someone to hold their hand the first few times at the track.
How many of us got into the sport through a parent or family member taking us to the track, showing us the ropes, teaching us to read the Form? A day at the races is more of a singular experience rather than the collective experience of professional team sports. The allure requires that "inside" connection.
Charm can be a gray area. A congregation of wise guys in the clubhouse has a relative charm. A gleaming dark bay tugging a groom around the walking ring has an aesthetic charm. A woman sipping a mint julep on Derby day has a graceful charm.
A great story line? Solid gold.
The story lines of Kentucky Derby 135 offered several 24 karat nuggets: a 75-year-old retired principal-turned-trainer with a one-horse stable; a trainer with two Derby runner-up efforts trying to win one before retirement; and a former Quarter Horse trainer trailering his horse from his stable at Sunland Park, N.M., across two time zones to the Twin Spires.
Outside the winner's circle, the story line of the Derby was about business. Oaks and Derby attendance topped 250,000; all-sources handle topped $185 million. While the economic downturn may have put a damper on Louisville businesses, on the surface this year's Derby remained fairly strong considering the national economy.
High atop the sixth floor of Churchill Downs on Derby day was Richard Duchossois, head of Duchossois Industries and former owner of Arlington Park. In 2000, Arlington merged with Churchill Downs and the 86-year-old Chicago business titan became a director, and more important, the largest shareholder in CDI.
"Right now we have an economic push down, but I sort of look at it as if we have far more opportunities than we've ever had before," Duchossois said with a rosy outlook.
With the economy being "pushed down," it's the best time for racetracks to "push forward."
For racing's biggest weekend, Churchill found an opportunity with Chris Sullivan of Outback Steakhouse fame and created the Infield Club, giving many a chance to move up from steerage class of the infield set. For those with $175 for the weekend, it proved popular enough.
Wireless applications and advance deposit wagering technologies will perhaps "push forward" new growth.
"Maybe our industry got a little behind in the technology age," Duchossois said. "We're no different from other industries, and they're now all doing the same things. We need to catch up.
"Maybe we overindulged for a little while, but now we're going to have to understand what business is all about. I'm not talking just about Churchill Downs, but about the entire industry for the next few years."
Duchossois then offered some leadership points.
"Those that can't recognize that changes need to be made are going to be left out," he said. "It thins out the field, so to speak. Look at the breeding industry, where the stallion prices have all been reduced. The number of foals are coming down.
We lived in excess in our industry. Too many horses, too many races. People just got tired of ‘too much.'
"The financial industry, the automotive industry, and many other large industries maybe didn't recognize these things early enough.
"Maybe we got a little bit lazy," Duchossois said. "We talked more than we acted. Now we're starting to act."
It's time to act before the bloom comes off the rose.
Thanks for the kickstart, Mr. D.