Growth is Good - By Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the May 15, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at 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?

Spring Colors

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.

11 Comments

Leave a Comment:

jonathan

Larry Ellison decided "The Americas Cup", one of America's oldest sporting events needed to come home.  He took his spirit and money, recruited sponsorship, took part of his life and indeed brought the cup home. Horse racing is not much different - It is about marketing in appropriate ways and the industry better wake up before the thoroughbred industry goes the way of the America's Cup - We are almost out of time!

11 May 2010 3:32 PM
shuttleworth

I agree. I think new technology, promotional and marketing efforts, and non-profit tie-ins can keep racing as a viable sport in the future. I also believe that racing needs a commissioner, and needs to continue investing in ways to make racing safer for horses and jockeys. I applaud the efforts by some, notably Jess Jackson, in their efforts to breed strength/stamina back into the breed. An oversight committee with specific roles, headed by a commissioner would be a strong proactive approach to secure the future of racing... (now if we could get everyone to agree on something... )

11 May 2010 4:19 PM
Ken Woodall

    I agree that general public tie-ins, prizes, and learning easy ways to hanicap will help. But every sport also needs long-term followers starting at a relatively young age. There cneeds to be developed a tie-in between young people and jockeys.

Young people are tied in greatly to Toby McGuire, but for Spiderman, not Seabiscuit. More color, action, and confrontation, modern looking story line. Let's hope the Secretariat movie helps. and tei-ins can be produced!

11 May 2010 5:20 PM
olliejay

Great article and right on the money.The business is out there,just needs to be tapped.Night racing dates a great idea,especially friday nights.More info and great contests on-site a definite plus.The influx of new affordable exotic bets has been a good thing at many tracks.I do think casinos,slots,race tracks,hotels,restaurants.and other entertainment venues can make great business partners,and great destinations to visit.Now if we can just get the money to see the light,we the customer will come.

11 May 2010 5:44 PM
FourCats

"The industry needs to wise up and invest in the kind of wagering technology necessary for the sport’s survival."

It's not the "industry".  There is no "industry".  The only people who have the wherewithal and capability to fund innovation, clean up the facilities and market horse racing are the track owners.  But almost all of them spend all of their efforts lobbying to get slots and no effort marketing the sport of horse racing or providing clean facilities.  I'm not naive enough to not realize that the owners are facing financial difficulties.  But any business that hopes to thrive in the future needs to market itself, improve it's product and provide a clean/pleasant environment for it's customers.  It really seems as if the track owners just don't care (or are completely incompetent).

11 May 2010 7:06 PM
Dan

I like night racing as well.  Churchill does it right.

I think consolodation does need to take place however to create more of an event atmosphere, compared to a grind perception.  Monmouth is on the right track in my opionion...no pun intended.

Racing Must entice...

Create corporate partnerships to increase wager rewards...Casino's have VIPs, why would a race track expect to get his business without treating a big player accordingly.

Sale: why not market a "sale" lower a tracks takeout in hopes of increasing revenue

Taxing is still a major issue...you can win thousands at a casino...yet you win 600 times your bet regardless of your spread...you have to pay a tax...that needs to be fixed.

12 May 2010 9:08 AM
David

Collectively the industry has sufficient funds to do as you say.  Unfortunately, few appear willing to allow synergy to displace parochial kingdoms.  Protecting jobs within the dozens of overlapping groups, state commissions creating wheels and a menagerie of horsemen groups who define best practice as that which happens within their own jurisdiction all serve to sap revenue that could be put to good use.  Mr. Brown is correct of course but the core question remains – who is capable of bringing about reform?

12 May 2010 9:46 AM
JavaGold

I worked in Thoroughbred racing for 15 years as a journalist, then in marketing, and I hate to say it, but the barn door is closed and the horse got out. I wrote in "The Final Turn" 20 years ago that they should run the Kentucky Derby on Sunday night. Everyone in racing I talked to hated the idea: "It's against the tradition." Yes it is and that's the point. Unless you are willing to throw away everything, nothing progressive will ever happen. Horse racing has been in a stranglehold by the breeders and track owners and I am afraid the industry is a day late and a dollar short.

12 May 2010 11:11 AM
fb0252

Historic day! To see this in print! Seriously, what has taken so long?  Will we get follow ups on "marketing"?

12 May 2010 5:45 PM
Robin Howlett

I'm a programmer and I'm trying to bring some of my skills to help people enjoy this game a little more. I've released one tool already, thoroMotion, which allows you to get a visualization of race by using the official chart data. 

I've started to interview bettors about what they want next. The problem is they are all telling me they want a big database-like app that they can query to their hearts contents and any number of strategies they can think of. While that's fine it doesn't appeal to me as something to make, certainly while Equibase charges high fees for access to machine-readable past performance and result data.

I'm more interested now in a start-up idea for horseracing based around handicapping contests and social tipping and am interviewing (and looking for more) people about it.

I don't think it's too late yet but racing is so devoid of any leadership and creativity it's not looking good.

12 May 2010 7:06 PM
Pedigree Shelly

          I realize this is off the subject, and I'm not quite sure how to bring this up ? I enjoy your magazine thoroughly,it is the best in the world ! I'm not trying to  criticize but , I think I found an error in the BH Derby Edition . It didn't catch my eye right away because I was excited to read the article.It was the well written piece by Dave Schmitz (can't locate his e-mail address) The name of article was "Super Selection" The statement in question in red print is " Success of Bluegrass Cat leads to purchase of his full sister,who produces Derby winner Super Saver " . I believe it should read, " Success of Bluegrass Cat leads to the purchase of his dam's full sister, who produces Derby winner Super Saver ." Super Saver's Dam Supercharger is a full sister to She's A Winner , the dam of Bluegrass Cat ! Trying to start my career as a bloodstock agent ,Please feel free to contact me @ Shellypedigree @ aol.com or you may contact me at (812) 934-6019 . Thank You and take care .

13 May 2010 3:07 PM

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