Attracting the Fan

By Teresa Genaro

Racing faces the daunting task of marketing an identical product to two disparate audiences:  the gambler and the fan.  Racing can't exist without the former, and it shouldn't exist without the latter.

Figuring out how to get more gambling dollars through the windows (or over the bandwidth) is best left to those who know much more about it than I do; I seldom go the track without betting at all, but as a $2 bettor, I am not particularly well versed in how to extract large sums from heavy hitters. 

Aside from the prospect of going home with a little more money than I came with, what attracts me to racing are the stories:  of the horses, the trainers, the jockeys, the history.  Racing is arguably the oldest sport in this country, and it carries with it a wealth of narratives and legends and tales; even now, most racing telecasts make sure to provide a little back story on the more colorful entrants, in the vein of the old ABC "Up Close and Personal" reports from the Olympics. Smarty Jones had legions of fans not only because he could run fast, but because his owners had a compelling story that was spread all over the television and the newspapers.

While gamblers sustain racing, a track with gamblers only wouldn't be a very fun place to be; Keeneland and Saratoga are popular because they're frequented by fans and small bettors, creating an atmosphere in which people root for their favorites, bet on horses with the same name as their neighbor's dog, and, we can hope, come back again next time with a few friends.

The last few weeks have given us opportunity to reflect on the power of the story in the sport of racing.   Curlin wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the second year in a row; it wasn't a great betting race, but his record-breaking victory, not the payout, was the story.

And last weekend, seen by far too few people, the well-connected Zarkava, owned by the Aga Khan, took on Europe's best and impossibly beat them; an ocean and a continent away, the humble Pepper's Pride, owned by Joe Allen, set a record of her own by winning her seventeenth consecutive race, an accomplishment that ESPN saw fit to trumpet on a crawl below its Saturday racing telecast.  

The stories are out there, at every track and on every backstretch, and they will bring people to the races.  As a friend recently wrote to me, "And so horses have made a prince (His Highness Aga Kahn) and a (not quite) pauper (Joe Allen) as happy as they'll ever be.  And we get to go along for the ride."


Teresa Genaro writes regularly about racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.

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