Reconnecting - By Rick Gold

(Originally published in the December 4, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)   

Rick Gold is CEO of a California high-tech company and a partner in Bourbon Trace Stables

We’re all familiar with the litany of problems facing our sport: declining attendance, wagering, and foal crops—a vicious cycle of key indicators. Recent issues of The Blood-Horse have contained numerous articles analyzing these problems and offering suggestions to fix them. The proposals seem to focus on slots, Instant Racing, higher takeouts, lower takeouts, or national advertising. Most recently, we saw a detailed analysis of regional demographics with implications for targeted advertising to attract new owners.

I respectfully submit that these analyses and proposals completely miss the point. Ultimately, they all treat fans, horseplayers, and owners simply as ATMs to be milked.  The discussions all assume with brighter lights, flashier advertising, and slicker betting options we’ll be able to pull more dollars out of more people.

These are all important topics, but they ignore what sets Thoroughbred horse racing apart from other sports and other gambling options: the beauty of an equine athlete in motion. While our industry snickers at the inaccuracies in the movie “Secretariat,” millions of Americans are coming away with tears in their eyes. While our industry is preoccupied looking down its collective nose at synthetic surfaces, thousands of people who have never watched a horse race before are screaming for Zenyatta.

We will only get this industry moving “upward and to the right” when we begin to help each potential fan, horseplayer, or owner to make that personal connection. The bad news is that we do a horrible job of it today, but there are some relatively simple and inexpensive improvements.
For instance:

• I showed up at Hollywood Park at 8 a.m. on a recent Saturday hoping to see Zenyatta gallop. This was just after her 19th win just as the Breeders’ Cup buzz was starting to build. So what did the guard tell me? “Sorry, sir, I can’t let you in without a (state) license.”
You’ve got to be kidding.

The track has a “railbird” program on Sundays but is otherwise closed to the public in the morning. How much would it cost to open it up? How much Zenyatta swag could they sell? With a little bit of marketing, this could be a great opportunity to get people exposed to the “inside game.” Belmont and Saratoga do a slightly better job than the California tracks, but even there the morning programs are sporadic and poorly promoted.

• Our industry does little to promote our stars: horses, jockeys, trainers. Very few top trainers even have a website or blog with accessible content. Our tracks have lots of online information describing exotic betting options but almost nothing on the sport itself. It is interesting to contrast Thoroughbred racing with sled dog racing, another of my passions. That sport spends a tiny fraction of the dollars, but if you check out the website of the Iditarod Trail Committee, or top mushers Martin Buser or Aliy Zirkle, you’ll see exciting content that puts horse racing to shame. Mike Smith’s “helmet cam” ride on Zenyatta, posted by trainer John Shirreffs, sends a chill down my back every time I see it. I’ve sent a link to this video to friends who have then gone to the track for the first time in their lives.

• Except for big days, the stands at most tracks are all but empty. Yet it is frequently difficult to get a good seat in a box or Turf Club. Baseball and football teams learned several years ago to embrace StubHub! and other resale opportunities to fill unused season-ticket seats in a fan-friendly way. It’s a win-win-win.

• The Iditarod, mentioned above, also makes it easy for fans to sign up as volunteers. In exchange for a VIP pass that lets them get behind the lines, hundreds of people work 4-16 hour days doing everything from security to logistics. Maybe Breeders’ Cup could do something similar on a smaller scale.

I believe the first step is to start treating potential fans and owners not as statistics but as individuals to be welcomed into this amazing game. We have only barely begun to take advantage of the new technology at our disposal to help them make a connection. There is no sport on earth that offers the thrills of Thoroughbred racing. It’s up to us to spread the word.

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