Three years ago, a McKinsey & Co. report, "Driving Sustainable Growth for Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding", gave thoroughbred racing a wake-up call: If the Jockey Club and its kin didn't address the main issues facing racing, the sport would decline, becoming marginalized and moribund.
The McKinsey report said "to stabilize the fan base and position the industry to resume growth," racing must:
- refocus on the best racing through television, integrity reforms, and elevating the best product,
- retain the core bettor by innovating wagering and providing an integrated on-track and off-track wagering platform through track-integrated ADW (advanced deposit wagering). Enhance the ownership experience through additional tools and transparency,
- reinvest in new fans through simplified betting, social games, and promoting innovations in on-track experiences and new-look OTBs.
The kid gloves are off.
The foundation of racing integrity reforms, a national, uniform policy covering the used of race day and pre-race medications and treatments, is still not in place. At the 2013 Jockey Club Round Table, Chairman Ogden Mills Phipps raised the spectre of the Jockey Club supporting federal intervention and regulation if "the current medication reform effort stalls." With the 2014 Round Table taking place this weekend on August 10, it's hard to deny the coincidence that a consortium of 24 leading thoroughbred trainers releasing a statement outlining a timetable to eliminate race-day medications on August 1. Time will tell if this is last minute pandering or a genuine commitment to reform.
It's yet to be seen whether or not this will satisfy the Jockey Club. Despite the trainers' statement, there is much divisiveness over drugging racehorses. It would be nice if the issue could be resolved within the comfortable confines of the Round Table. Given the polarity of opinions on uniform medication, it's more likely that acceptance will be gained through a state-by-state, racetrack-by-racetrack, or even barn-by-barn dog-fight. That is, unless the feds step in with a medication policy, mandate regulation and oversee its implementation.
Effort bears fruit.
Casting aside its institutional cobwebs, the Jockey Club launched America's Best Racing (ABR), "a multi-media new-fan development and racing awareness-building platform." ABR's goal is to increase the profile and visibility of North America's best Thoroughbred racing events, focusing on the sport's lifestyle and competition aspects.
A squad of ABR social media mavens and outreach ambassadors has infiltrated the millennial ecosystem across the nation. Bloggers, videographers and photographers report major races and events. Racing news drives ABR's website, accompanied by track etiquette, racing and wagering tutorials, and what-to-wear -- from haute to affordable. Indeed, racing's fashion cadre includes leading young turf writers, bloodstock agents, jockeys and racetrack professionals as well as casual race-goers.
Last year, ABR initiated a roving band of young racing aficionados to promote racing peer-to-peer. This program has morphed into embedding one or two racing ambassadors in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. Victoria Garofalo is one of the original ABR ambassadors who is working the New York/Northeast sector this year. She explains her role:
Instead of only visiting tracks for a week leading up to their biggest race we're able to be in a market year-round and continue to cultivate and maintain -- which is extremely important . My NE colleague Dan and I are able to host guests at the track when timing suits their schedule best and help create the ultimate first-time experience at the races.
When I'm not hosting guests at the races I spend the majority of my time researching the top influencers, young professional groups and the movers and shakers in the market - once I've identified those people I reach out about who I am and what ABR is and then once they respond we begin coordinating their trip to the track. If it's food bloggers I might suggest they come out to a day of food trucks at the races, a fashion blogger on a day when there's a hat contest, etc., showing people how horse racing can fit into their lives.
A good number of our guests have been bloggers - lifestyle, travel & fashion bloggers are eager to try new things and tend to share those positive experiences with their followers, which in turn, gets more people interested and aware of horseracing. Everybody knows somebody, so if every person we brought out to the races influences or brings just one friend (who brought another friend etc.) it naturally grows our wonderful sport.
Mike Johnson, who joined ABR this year, is responsible for the Chicago region. Prior to ABR, Mike was a marketing assistant at Arlington International, Chicago's iconic racecourse. Mike describes his modus operandi:
There is a bar in town that has been great to us -- it's literally called "Derby." Derby is outfitted with authentic retro horse racing decor, which makes for a great venue to work with. Add to the fact that it is located in a fairly young, hip part of town and it became fairly apparent this is an off-track location that not only identifies with the sport, but also could legitimately develop fans. I've held race watch parties, as well as three bus trips to Arlington that have over 50 people in attendance. Nearly all the attendees are eager to learn about the nuances of racing.
What I have found is that there is no shortage of "interest," but there are undoubtedly deficiencies in education and awareness of the sport.
My role and goal has always been to create a baseline, yet lasting awareness of the top Thoroughbred racing North America has to offer. In a given day of hosting a group at the races, I want to make sure they leave with the "training wheels off." I like for them to be able to read the program comfortably, have a solid understanding of the facts and fiction of the sport, and know how to have a blast wagering only $20 throughout the course of the day. Last but not least, I hope by the end of the races, they are already planning their next visit.
If I can ensure they have these basics covered, then the next time they visit, they'll be able to share their knowledge with friends or family they return with. My goal would be to enact a "snowball effect."
Televised programming finding its way.
Another component of McKinsey's recommendations is television coverage. Network television is paying more attention to horse racing. NBC, NBCSports and Fox Sports 1 are covering major races from coast to coast. The Breeders' Cup Challenge Series has teamed up with NBC and NBCSports to broadcast hotly-contested races that qualify the winners to a guaranteed Breeders' Cup berth, waived entry fees and travel money. The series showcases the best in racing between spring's Triple Crown madness and the Breeders' Cup Championships in late fall.
Jockey Club Racing Tour on Fox Sports 1 offers an eclectic mix of top races from the U.S., Canada and Dubai. NBCSports and Fox Sports 1 are cable-only viewing; availability depends on the cable provider and package subscribed to.
The challenge with relying on traditional television is the changing habits in viewing media. Tablets, smartphones, and laptops are ubiquitous. They offer the possibility of watching races while untethered from a television. Livestreaming to these devices is available for some racing, not all - which is frustrating. Considering that the millennial generation, being wooed by racing (and every other sport...) is as comfortable using a smartphone as a television remote, it makes sense to have livestreamed racing as part of a racing media package with the networks.
A mixed bag.
To educate prospective owners and provide current owners with at-their-fingertip information needed to make informed decisions about their horses, OwnerView is a first class resource.
Finding success in social media horseracing games has been elusive for the Jockey Club. Future in-house game development has been abandoned.
What's next ...
The 2014 Jockey Club Round Table will be livestreamed starting at 10 a.m. on Sunday, August 10.
(Note: Victoria Garafolo and Mike Johnson quotes from interviews)