Grassroots - By Evan Hammonds

The sport of Thoroughbred racing puts on its best show on the first Saturday in May. While the weather might not have cooperated with those in Louisville during the week, the atmosphere was electric, the racing was spectacular, and the pulse of the game showed it is still strong.

Could things be better? Sure, but the weekend showed that the two biggest hurdles facing racing today—growing the fan base and growing the owner base—might be getting a tad shorter.

This discussion came up during the Kentucky Derby Trainer’s Dinner May 2 in downtown Louisville. The time-honored event, hosted by the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, brings together industry insiders as well as local community leaders.

At our table the conversation turned to how to keep this wonderful sport going. The inevitable question was asked: “What can we do to grow the fan base?”

While there is no magic bullet, we suggested the answer is pretty simple and threefold.

Major companies such as Comcast (owners of NBC) and sponsors such as Longines, Brown-Forman, and Yum! Brands have a stake in racing through their marketing budgets, so support them and give them some return. Buy a watch; buy a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon; buy a share of YUM stock. That’s a start.

Secondly, people get interested in racing through experiencing the sport live. Most everyone in the game was introduced to it by a parent, an uncle, or a group of friends taking them to the track and showing them the ropes.

My grandmother fostered my interest in racing. During racing season she went to Keeneland every day, and I recall many a spring day spent roaming the clubhouse lawn. She later taught me how to read a past performance and from there, I was off and running.

It’s not mass marketing; it’s a one-on-one proposition, but it works. It’s the smell, the anticipation, the excitement, and the tingle at the track that plant the seeds.

This came to light following Always Dreaming’s thrilling victory in the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), in the story of the friendship of co-owners Anthony Bonomo and Vincent Viola and how they both got interested in racing. It was recast in the post-race press conference. Both have long-lasting memories of being at the track with their fathers in their formative days.

“It was just magical being next to your dad as he was really committed to a sport he loved,” Viola remembered tenderly. “And my dad handicapped, and bet, quite frankly, every day of his life.

“And I remember so distinctly the crowds. Saturday afternoon crowds. And I remember distinctly that the men would respect each other because they would fold their newspapers and put them in the seams of the seat (to save them). As a young man, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ These guys are pretty impressive men at the track.”

Thirdly—and it is a little more costly—it’s the adrenaline rush of Thoroughbred ownership. Fractional ownership through partnerships is the growth area of racing, and the weekend’s results should lend further traction.

Part ownership of the Derby winner belongs to the partnership group West Point Thoroughbreds, led by Terry Finley.

The weekend’s other big race, the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1), was won by Abel Tasman, racing for the partnership group China Horse Club and Clearsky Farms. When China Horse Club was started by principal Teo Ah Khing four years ago he had 100 members, and it has grown substantially since then. Winning top races around the globe such as the Oaks will further carry the brand into the Asian market and have others reaching for the prospectus.

Both Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds have launched racing clubs, and both had runners in the Pat Day Mile Stakes Presented by LG&E and KU (G3), bringing added value to the “pride of ownership” on Derby Day.

It’s a grassroots effort, but an easy pitch for those of us who know we’ve got the best show in town.

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