We’re Virtually There - By Evan Hammonds

All sports have had to adapt on the fly since mid-March as COVID-19 caused closures, shutdowns, and lockdowns around the globe. Professional sports rely on attendance—and food and beverage service—as a revenue stream, and with that component missing or greatly reduced, along with lower ratings on television/streaming services, not every venture will come out on the other side of the virus after all of the bubbles, pods, and positives.

So far Thoroughbred racing, however, has been on the right side of the curve. Able to continue “the greatest game played outdoors,” while providing much-needed content to sports networks, and with fairly advanced technology—online wagering platforms—racing has actually raised its profile in this mad, mad, mad 2020.

The racing calendar hits the sixteenth pole this weekend with the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Keeneland. Breeders’ Cup, headed by Drew Fleming, who was named president just a year ago, broke sharply from the gate several months ago with a target marketing plan.

“Back in June we partnered with The Jockey Club, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, TVG, and TOBA, among a number of industry groups, with a
campaign called ‘Still Running Strong,’ ” Fleming said. “It showcased that horseracing was in a unique situation to be running when other sports were shuttered. It was an opportunity to showcase our industry’s product to a new group, and we are continuing to leverage on that.

“We’ve started another campaign that we had approved pre-COVID, and we felt it was more important to strengthen that and further support it. We really want to leverage the momentum we have to go out to general racing fans in a highly focused, digital television campaign to showcase how great the World Championships are and how the best horses in the world will be coming to Keeneland.”

It was the week after Labor Day when Breeders’ Cup announced that fans wouldn’t be allowed on site at Keeneland. However, it won’t be an empty house, as owners and industry participants will be in the stands to watch the 14 races in the two-day package. Breeders’ Cup has worked diligently to make the event special for those precious few on site and even more so for the many watching at home.

“We have been working with local health authorities, our own health officials, local and state officials, and we have stringent protocols in place,” Fleming said. “We are testing all of the Breeders’ Cup and Keene-land employees and temporary staff and vendors. We have created an essential bubble on Rice Road for the contenders back there. We’ll have temperature checks and medical screenings, and we are mandating face masks. We have been working hard for a long time with Keeneland—they’ve been great partners—to make sure that we have advanced COVID protocols in effect.”

Safe and secure on site, perhaps what is even more exciting is what is waiting for viewers at home.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time and energy and investment in making sure that the fans who can’t be here in person can still have the best Breeders’ Cup experience at home,” Fleming said. “There are a couple of things we’ve never done before, and we don’t think any racing organization in the world has done before. Breeders’ Cup will have the most robust production ever for a horse racing event, and NBC will have access to more than 80 cameras for the coverage.

“In addition to those cameras, we are going to have a suspended camera on the backstretch as well as two jockey cams that will be worn by select jockeys on the day.

“As we evolve as a business with more technology, we are also going to be using a second screen that will be available on your iPad (or tablet). This would be on breederscup.com/live where we will have a new addition called ‘contender cam.’ This is up to 14 different live streams of different horses. This is geared more toward the bettors who unfortunately won’t be on track. We wanted to make sure that if they wanted to follow a specific horse from the paddock to the starting gate, they’ll be able to. There will be 14 of those individual cameras following 14 individual horses so you watch one horse the entire time.

“We are also trying to get the ‘true immersion’ experience as well with the Breeders’ Cup virtual reality experience. So, it will be as if you are standing in the walking ring in the paddock area…and you can use your iPhone to go around and see the different views.

“Our team has put in an incredible amount of work and has shown a lot of innovation, and we are excited to roll out the red carpet for those who will be watching from home,” Fleming added. “We are all in this together, and we need to grow.”

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