“History consists of a series of accumulated imaginative inventions.” - Voltaire
As a Thoroughbred owner, I stand on the shoulders of giants. Horse racing’s tradition and history are like no other. However, in the past 30 years, we’ve been surpassed by the major sports leagues. Being a traditionalist, I don’t blame the caretakers for this lapse. When you have more than 100 Kentucky Derbys, it’s easy to say, “Hey, we’re doing something right.”
Major League Baseball suffered the same fate. However, in the 1990s, recognizing what was happening around them, the MLB powers that be reversed course. Lights at the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field and advertising on their field of dreams were only a few of the needed changes. They even sped up their “timeless” game, which was then clocking in at more than three hours. Baseball grew up. Better yet, it did so while maintaining its rich history. The last time I checked, they still observed the seventh inning stretch.
It’s time for Thoroughbred racing to follow baseball’s lead.
When Big Brown entered the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, jockey Kent Desormeaux switched his riding helmet for a UPS Racing Team hat. Two days later, UPS and Big Brown’s connections struck a marketing deal.
We should be thrilled for this possible new revenue stream for owners, except for one small problem. It’s against the rules!
Both the name of the winner of the Run for the Roses and the ensuing marketing deal violate Section V.6. of The Jockey Club Rule Book. “Names of horses clearly having commercial significance, such as trade names, are ineligible.” The rule has a sister component adopted by most states that doesn’t allow stable names to have any commercial value either. As has been reported on multiple occasions, co-owner Paul Pompa Jr. named the horse after the freight carrier, the United Parcel Service, or UPS. We’re not sure how this one got past the excellent folks at The Jockey Club, but instead of crying equal protection, owners should look at this as an opportunity.
It’s time to repeal the entire rule.
Without going into a financial analysis of the horse racing industry, let’s assume for the sake of argument we’re in some trouble. We’ve tried almost every marketing campaign known to man, except the one staring at us in the face. With promising champions being whisked away to the breeding sheds too early, I can think of no better marketing for the sport than the advent of racing teams and names with commercial value.
Now, before everyone goes all NASCAR on me, let me say this. Our horses will not be called Miller Lite. Marketing is about creativity, trust, and understanding your fan base. If the folks at Miller brewing sponsors a team, they will want you to buy their product, not mock it. The very nature of the marketplace will demand that the traditions and pageantry remain.
In truth, I actually don’t mind a series of names centered around “taste great, less filling.” Let’s be honest, our names now aren’t much better. For some reason, I can’t name my horse “Dew It,” but “Plugmein” is acceptable. I shouldn’t have to tell you there are more T-shirts that say “Mountain Dew” than “Santa Anita Park.”
Creating new revenue for owners will have a serious trickle-down effect. More importantly, larger fan bases and connectivity with that audience will grow attendance, which will ultimately increase wagering pools. In addition, we will have also found a key component missing from the game—name recognition and staying power. Go to any Web site dedicated to a sponsored racing team and tell me you wouldn’t want to see something similar for horse racing.
I know there has been support on this issue in the past. With Big Brown making headlines and a run for the Triple Crown June 7, our fractured business finally needs to come together on this one. If California adopts it and Kentucky doesn’t, where does that get us except more infighting over the same small pie?
Apple pie, anyone?
Gary Fenton is the managing partner/CEO of Little Red Feather Racing, which is based in Los Angeles