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.


Leave a Comment:

Howard da Walker

The only way horse racing can suceed is for folks to be able to bet where we buy lottery tickets. The idea if taking a day off work and going to the races means losing a day of work. How much do I have to bet to make up for the hourly wage I miss working. Let me buy my tickets where I want. The handle will triple overnight. Wake up horse racing!

17 Sep 2013 11:54 AM
Dave Schwartz

Several decades ago ESPN re-invented sports in America by spreading the signal far and wide. Not only did it revitalize sporting events but it also provided a new and far more lucrative revenue stream.

This is what racing needs - income from sources beyond the bettor.

There are many good ideas to be gleaned from the article above. Anybody in track management reading?

17 Sep 2013 3:16 PM
steve from st louis

And if Matt is your son, you did nothing to produce a lively, entertaining, charismatic salesman for the Sport of Kings. Aloof, effete and condescending spokeperson for the Sport of Snobs? Yes, you then  raised him well.

17 Sep 2013 3:32 PM
Fran Loszynski

We can revitalize racing by raising champions that have strong stock and not speed to a speed stallion vice versa, some of our champion stallions looked like they could pull a Budweiser truck! Also have more famous stallions remembrance day events.

17 Sep 2013 7:47 PM

I totally agree with the article. I live in Arizona and can't even open an online wagering account because I live in Arizona! How stupid is that. People who live in other states can bet horses online but I can't because of the state I live in. The racing industry should be up in arms that there are horse players in some states who can't bet online. How much more would the pools be if that silly rules were changed?

17 Sep 2013 9:36 PM

Jncapp - I'm with you - it is terrible that those of us in Arizona cannot bet online etc.  I watch TVG all the time and would love to open an account but cannot! (and I cannot even find a company that carries HRTV here) The casinos here are the reason from what I have heard but that needs to be changed!  Racing here is dying - great example is the bankruptcy of the new Yavapai Downs and it's failure to run a meet the past two summers.  And I was at Turf Paradise right before it closed for the summer and I was surprised that the facility was not looking in the best of shape.  :-(

18 Sep 2013 12:04 AM

it only took to Sept. 2013.  Congrats to whoever finally posted this!

18 Sep 2013 12:44 PM

One of the major problems with racing, from a player's perspective, is that the wagering vehicle is paramutuel. The more money that is bet on a horse, the lower its odds are. Your "tournament" televising idea, and its interactive element (betting a favorite players picks), probably would smother tournament play. Why? Because the top ranked tournament players' picks would be bet down by viewers, reducing the odds that player receives. That player would find another game quickly.

If, on the other hand, one could relate horse racing to the stock market, things become better, when lots of people invest money in a stock, the value of the stock increases, not decreases. Of course, this could not happen in horse racing, but it shows that the paramutuel factor in racing is a dramatic negative towards growing the game. The answer? Fixed odds wagering, at the point of the bet, after which the odds are recalculated for future bettors. At least then, the player would know what odds he will get should he win. That would allow the bettor to place more wagers, and more money, on probable winners without having the value of his investment being reduced by future bettors.

18 Sep 2013 5:57 PM

There are plenty of great points to this article but they are mainly for those existing bettors and gamblers.

As far as tradition being held, I digress. Not only has tradition gone away, it is barely there.

Fans were drawn to this industry by their stars. Great thoroughbreds that kept racing on prestigious races. The biggest change in tradition is the breeding. We went from sturdy, long career classic distance thoroughbreds to frail short career, short distance horses that nobody outside of the dwindling fan base recognize or even acknowledge by mainstream media.

Zenyatta was unique because she went in the 10 furlongs BC Classic.

The great prestigious races went away and with it the publicity and hype this industry desperately needed.

Comparing poker players to great handicapper does not quite compute in this case because ultimately the industry is about thoroughbred racing. Showcasing thoroughbred is what this industry about as far as recruiting new fans and converting them to bettors. Sure the betting part comes later when they get the satisfaction of handicapping a winner.

Getting fans and potential bettors to the racetrack is the challenge. Great individual handicappers is not going to do it. Great thoroughbreds at great prestigious races did that.

24 Sep 2013 2:56 PM

Recent Posts

What We're Reading

More Blogs