Horse Racing Needs a New Box

(This is an expanded version of a condensed piece in the September 21, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse)

Gibson Carothers is a longtime horseplayer who grew up at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He worked as Creative Director of Y&R Advertising in Los Angeles and BBDO in Minneapolis, owned racehorses in Southern California, served on the Board of Canterbury Park, and won a few Pick 6s along the way.

by Gibson Carothers

To remain successful in a competitive marketplace, products undergo changes and re-packaging. Soaps add magic formulas. Foods reduce fat. Cars think for themselves. New and Improved are two of the most used words in advertising.

Changes happen in every product category, including sports. Shot clocks, coach’s challenges, and fantasy leagues are all created in hopes of revitalizing the product and increasing revenues.

But horse racing seems resistant to change. Placing more emphasis on tradition than innovation. If horse racing came in a box, the box would look pretty much the same it did 50 years ago. Maybe even 100 years ago. Horse racing needs a major marketing makeover and the first step is to switch to a different product category--gambling. Horse racing needs to be marketed as a game. And not as a sport.

True, racing features great athletes, both man and horse. But it’s no longer covered on most sports pages. Rarely seen on Sports Center. Jockeys don’t get shoe contracts. And today’s market obviously relates much better to fast cars than fast horses.

As a spectator sport, horse racing makes baseball seem fast. At racetracks, a race is run about every 30 minutes, and when it’s run, most people have to watch a big screen or TV monitor to actually see the action. Between races casual fans and newcomers often appear lost. No wonder racetrack attendance continues to fall. Especially when you consider there are now plenty of flashier places to bet your money. And they don’t charge admission.

So why does anyone go the track with regularity?

Because some people recognize horse racing as the best betting option available despite racing’s failure to market it that way. With an educated bet, these fans get involved in the game. The races are more thrilling. And when you know how to handicap, the 30-minutes between races often fly by as you pour over all the information needed to make an informed selection.

Racing’ prime prospects (frequent players) are gamblers. Racing’s competition is casinos, lotteries and illegal sports betting. This is the product category where horse racing can and must gain share. To increase it’s piece of the gambling pie, racing must promote online wagering like it’s the second coming. Because it is.

In racing’s hay day, racetracks were the only place people could legally bet outside of Vegas. And they flocked to tracks.

In most states today, horse racing is the only game you can legally bet online, although the interpretation and enforcement of illegal online gambling on other games is murky and confusing at best.

But for now, legal online wagering on horse racing presents a unique advantage and enormous opportunity.

Yet live TV coverage of the Breeders‘ Cup and the Triple Crown races never once tells viewers they can bet these races at home. Not a peep. Racing’s best chance to build their market and the network’s best chance to build their audience, is never mentioned.

To take advantage of this online betting exclusive, there needs to be a national horse racing website. One where all Advance Deposit Wagering sites (where you can sign up and bet online) are listed. One that TV networks can direct their audiences to, and racing can feature in their advertising.

This website can also teach the game by offering interactive handicapping lessons. Rather than fret over a steep learning curve, racing needs to teach handicapping skills using all the incredible tools of the internet. It’s not rocket science and M.I.T. manages to teach that online. Each day this racing site can feature real races for visitors to handicap. Players can win free passes to their local track. New horseplayers can be born here.

When more people start learning the game and betting at home, more people will start going to the racetrack. It’s critical that racetracks realize this natural progression. Right now, they don’t. But they can learn from the Las Vegas experience.

When American Indian casinos started popping up all over the country, Vegas first feared people would stop coming to their casinos. They even changed their advertising campaign to appeal to vacationing families. Think about that--Vegas went G-rated.

It didn’t take long for the Las Vegas Tourism Bureau to figure out that more casinos meant more gamblers and more gamblers that then wanted to visit the world’s great gambling mecca. When America’s casino market expanded, it helped, not hurt, Las Vegas.

There are many who believe that racinos (allowing casino games to be played at racetracks) is the best way for securing the future of racing. They could be right, but not necessarily for the reasons usually given.

Racetracks like the new revenues racinos provide. Horsemen like that a percentage of those revenues go to purses. Current players like the bigger fields and higher quality of racing created. But none of these improvements necessarily moves the needle in growing the popularity of the product.

The biggest contribution of Racinos is that it brings prime prospects (gamblers) into the building. Rather than have to spend the bulk of a track’s advertising budget to lure gamblers from all over the marketplace, those gamblers are now in the house. The marketing job becomes to convert them into horseplayers.

A big part of any game is the winnings. Racing must promote the big scores and the big money involved. The fastest way to incentivize new players to buckle down and learn to better play the game is by promoting the rewards for doing so.

Six figure Superfecta payoffs and million dollar Pick Six wins have to be publicized. The fact that people have become millionaires during one afternoon at the track, on wagers sometimes less than $20, has obvious appeal. The Pick Six should be called “the lottery for thinking people”.

On Derby Day, Churchill Downs pays out over $100,000,000 in winning tickets. Those big dollar signs need to be held up high for all to see.

Along with winnings, racing must recognize the winners--the star players. In 2011, Patrick McGoey and Christian Hellmers finished one-two in the Breeders’ Cup Handicapping Challenge, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2012, they finished one-two again! Will there be a three-peat this November?

A few weeks ago, Kevin McFarland won the Del Mar handicapping tournament-- for the second straight year.

These guys aren’t lucky. These guys are good. Consistent winners prove it’s a game of skill.

And emphasis on skill plays against the image of fixed races and drugged horses. If those were pervasive problems, consistent winners would not exist.

Remember, at casinos you play against the House. When you win, you take their money. In horse racing, the track takes their cut from each race and the winning ticket holders divide up the rest. It’s obvious where you have the best chance to win. Tired of losing in casinos? Use your head and play the horses.

When racing’s star players compete in handicapping tournaments, racing needs to convince the television networks that these events have the same ingredients that get high-ratings for poker tournaments--big money, big wins, big losses, tons of drama and suspense, as well as weird and interesting players from all walks of life.

Plus handicapping tournaments have that incredible ace in the hole--the audience can play at home.

If you like the way a star handicapper is playing, you can put $10 on the same horse he bet $10,000 on. Just pick up your smart phone and put down your bet. Poker tournaments on TV provides vicarious thrills. Horse racing tournaments on TV can provide the real thing.

The “final table” of the NTRA Handicapper of the Year tournament, with it’s million dollars in prize money, should be televised as players make bets on races run every 10 minutes at tracks around the country. Network coverage of the Breeders’ Cup and the Triple Crown races should include live cuts to tournament action . Viewers can watch, learn and play along.

Horse racing is lucky to have the new tools necessary to regain it’s old glory. But the industry, and whomever is running it, must first embrace what their product really is--gambling. And then do some serious re-packaging to maximize racing’s appeal to the gaming market.

It shouldn’t even be a hard sell.

Gibson Carothers
Former racehorse owner and long-time horse player.
Served on the Board of Canterbury Park Racetrack.
Former Creative Director BBDO Advertising/Minneapolis.

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