(Originally published in the May 15, 2010 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
For the last few years the mainstream press has told us Thoroughbred racing needs a Triple Crown winner, another Seabiscuit, a “big horse,” to save racing.
While that type of singular sensation might elevate attendance at one track for one day, say a horse bidding for the Triple Crown or a bona fide star such as Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra, one athlete does not a sport make.
In reality, racing really needs a few good programmers, a little infusion of investment in technology, and a lot more entrepreneurial spirit. If the sport of Thoroughbred racing is to survive as a viable enterprise, it’s not going to come from the daily churn or slots. It’s going to come from growing the sport online and through advance deposit wagering.
On Kentucky Derby Day—racing’s biggest day of the year—AmTote suffered a network failure at its Oregon wagering hub that caused outages at some tracks and at two of the larger online wagering platforms: XpressBet.com and TwinSpires.com.
AmTote officials noted that while its software had been tested, a key component became locked due to transaction volumes. While this wasn’t a complete disaster—unless you were trying to bet the Derby (gr. I) online during the time AmTote was down—it should serve as a wake-up call. The industry needs to wise up and invest in the kind of wagering technology necessary for the sport’s survival. It’s only with a strong infrastructure that racing can grow, and the key to growth is attracting new bettors.
Some of that entrepreneurial spirit comes from John Y. Brown Jr., the former governor of the Bluegrass State and a man who launched Kentucky Fried Chicken, turning it from a handful of restaurants into a global brand.
“You’ve got to be brain-dead not to get out and develop a program to bring in more bettors,” he told us last week. “The market is there. It’s a fun sport and people are bored.”
Brown, whose enthusiasm is infectious, chucks slots at racetracks under the bus. “That’s like co-branding a pet shop next to a restaurant; it just doesn’t fit.” He sees growth through incentive programs, handicapping education via the Web, and more quality night racing.
A series of handicapping contests for newcomers—with plenty of advertising, publicity, and, of course, prize money, is one of many ideas out there.
“You’re talking to a fellow who took an old man in a white suit with a fourth-grade education and turned him into the world’s number-one brand only because he was the right idea at the right time,” Brown said. “This is the right idea for the right time for the horse industry.”
What’s the worst that could happen?
We would be remiss not to recognize the rapid success of the “Pink Out” during Oaks Day in Louisville. The Breeders’ Cup had a tie-in with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation in 2008, but it didn’t catch fire as it has under the Twin Spires. In early 2009 Churchill Downs’ brand development and marketing team approached the Komen people and quickly put together a charitable tie-in with the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). Last year $100,000 was donated to the breast cancer research foundation, and this year $1 was donated for every patron, raising more than $115,000. Emulating the famed “walk over” for Derby participants, the survivors’ walk on the main track prior to the Oaks has instantaneously become a “must-see” event on the racing calendar. Let’s hope the “People’s Pink Party” May 14 at Pimlico on Black-Eyed Susan Day gets off to a great start.
Seeing Churchill Downs awash in a sea of pink worn by Oaks patrons reminds us of the role fashion plays at racing’s biggest venues. Fashion, an integral part of racing at places such as Royal Ascot in England and the Melbourne Cup (Aust-I) in Australia, is another avenue for promoting the sport and bringing in new fans.