Get in the 'Zone' - By Bobby Jones

One of my favorite sayings is, “When you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras.” In almost every publication pertaining to our industry, the number-one concern is what to do with the dying fan base at our racetracks—the handle, attendance, VLTs, OTW, ADWs, etc… Not that these concerns are not real problems, I just don’t think they need to be so exotic. My suggestion is not a new one, just another look at the problem. It certainly won’t fix all of the internal problems, but it might help the industry have a better chance at survival.

In times of trouble, and in times of tragedy, in a time when you are seeking comfort, whom do you run to? Family.

Tampa hosted Super Bowl XLIII and did a beautiful job. What I enjoyed watching, besides the game, half-time shows, and commercials, was a show called the “NFL Experience,” a week-long promotion that aired on both ESPN and our local news station. They had fans interacting with NFL activities, like throwing a football through tires and kicking field goals. Some of the folks were competitive, but most of them looked like ordinary people having fun.

I took my 12-year-old son to the 51st running of the Daytona 500. We took off from the farm about 7 a.m., and on our way to the race, my son said, “You know, Dad, I don’t know much about NASCAR.”

To be honest, I didn’t either, but I said, “Well, it’s like the Kentucky Derby for stock cars, and I’m sure we’re gonna have fun!” And fun we had. I think the only thing we didn’t do was drive ’em. We parked, unloaded with cooler in hand, a couple of subs and snacks, a pair of headphones, two ponchos (chance of rain), and after a brisk 45-minute walk, we were in the gate.

I soon learned they had a “NASCAR Experience” located in the infield called the “Fan Zone.” You could buy a pass for $90, so we got two. I wasn’t going to say, “OK, son, let’s go to our seats and sit for three hours before the race.” We took a trolley ride and bang, we were in the “Zone,” and we had a blast!

Much like the paddock area at the racetrack, the back of each garage in the “Zone” horseshoes around the outside of the “Zone.” The backside of every garage had a big plate-glass window where fans could watch each race team get its car ready. There was even an opening at the bottom of the window to get autographs if you were lucky. We weren’t. We got there too late and the cars had already been moved, but I did get two lug nuts from a guy who was cleaning up Mark Martin’s garage. Cool, huh? Besides that, they had a rock band, a food court, beer, lemonade, ice cream, bungee jumping, and a rock climbing wall.

On big racing days with media coverage, wouldn’t it be great to have a “Fan Zone?” Build a couple of stalls and have retired horses with a groom. Show different parts of the horse; maybe have one tacked up with a jockey. Get a big screen TV and show some great races from the past. Have someone demonstrate how to bet, so newcomers are more comfortable doing this for the first time. Maybe invest in a simulator like the ones in the jocks’ room that the kids could ride with a big screen in front of them as if they were in the race. And why not clean up some used horse shoes to give out, or have autographed posters from a jockey or trainer?

The Daytona 500 was won by Matt Kenseth; he got the lead for 15 seconds and had 48 laps to go when the race was called for rain. Were we disappointed? Maybe, only because our driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., didn’t win. But so what? Eight hours earlier we didn’t even have a horse in the race. We do now and have the hat and shirt to prove it!

Walking 45 minutes back to our truck, in the rain, ponchos draped over our bodies, headphones still on my son’s head, he looked up at me and said, “Thanks, Dad.”

The Thoroughbred industry has always been rich in family tradition, with generation upon generation of horsemen. Family matters all the time, especially in these times.

When you hear hoof beats, look for fans, not just gamblers.

Bobby Jones is the manager of BryLynn Farm near Reddick, Fla.

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