A Modest Proposal to (Help) Fix Horse Racing
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A Modest Proposal to (Help) Fix Horse Racing
May 2012 - Stephanie Shertzer Lawson

At the 2011 Pennsylvania Horse Conference in Harrisburg March 14, Mike Newlin, the relatively new general manager of the Meadowlands racetrack outside New York City, was a featured speaker.  He was there, presumably, to talk to the people most involved in racing in Pennsylvania about how to save racing.

While he spoke the screen behind him showed the new Meadowlands promotions he devised – Thirsty Thursday (free beer), Free Friday (free admission, program, and free World Poker, whatever that is – the photo shows men holding playing cards.)  All were designed to catch the attention of young people with no real interest in horseracing, get them to the track and hope that between the beer and the card games, they have a good time.

I have attended many horse conferences, and this approach is pretty much business as usual for horseracing.  Newlin has spent his entire career promoting racing.  He’s the new GM at the Meadowlands to do just that. Still he groans, our customers are old (they’re gonna die), our sport is boring to young people, our activities (betting) are too confusing.  The end is always near.

“It’s not cool to go to the races,” Newlin said.  “When we get younger people to the track, we don’t engage them.”

Newlin’s solution:  Free programs so they don’t have to pay to be in tune with what’s happening around them.  But is that really the best a marketing executive can offer?

I have spent my entire career in marketing, starting with theme parks and travel destinations, and moving on to equestrian events as varied as the Willowdale Steeplechase and Pennsylvania Horse World Expo, and I was dying to ask a marketing question in front of that audience of Pennsylvania racing leaders.  Mike was out of time, so I didn’t get the chance.  I had to find him later.

The question I have been dying to ask?  Why don’t you market racing to horse people? 

You mean, other breeds?  he asked.

My pitch -- Horse enthusiasts already think it’s fun to watch horses run around a track.  You don’t need to give them free beer – the product is enough.  The 2005 American Horse Council survey said 4.6 million Americans are involved with horses as horse owners, service providers, employees and volunteers. Tens of millions more participate as spectators.  The 2005 Penn State study found that racing is only 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s horse economy, meaning non-racing horse owners make up the other 88 percent.

That’s a huge target market. These millions of horse enthusiasts are low hanging fruit, ripe for picking, but apparently aren’t on racing’s radar screen.

Marketing to horse enthusiasts is cheap.  Effectively targeting horse enthusiasts via equine publications and websites would require less than a tenth of a percent of the $30 million the Meadowlands spends promoting racing as happy hour.  And it undoubtedly would be more effective in creating new fans.

Chris, the marketing guy, replied, Good point. You’re right  I don’t know (why we never target horse enthusiasts.)

My impression – it never occurred to them.

So, racing guys, give it a thought.  Maybe it’s not just racing that’s broken, but also the conventional wisdom of how to fix it.  Extend an invitation – maybe start a club for horse enthusiasts that includes perks and an ongoing contest to pick the most winners, add a horse related premium, celebrate another breed for an evening, or hold a meet-the-local-stars session.  Horse people – especially those elusive young ones -- love to gather with other horse people.  (We’ve all got to get out of the barn sometimes.)  Teach THEM how to gamble.  We all visit the paddock to evaluate condition, soundness, attitude – it just comes naturally.   All we need to know is the definition of exacta.

In addition to attendance, if you had horse owners (of all breeds) on your side, involved as fans, you’d have a bigger constituency to lobby the state government to get your money back.  There might be more recognition of how having a strong racing economy helps the horse industry as a whole – keeping tack shops, barn builders, feed companies, vets, farriers, and workers humming, which helps us all.  Interest in retired racehorses might increase.

In the 18 years that I have been publishing Pennsylvania Equestrian, not one penny has been spent promoting racing to our readers or to the readers of any other equestrian publication in the region.  Despite my requests to receive them, Penn National has never sent a press release, and Harrah’s Chester and the Meadows haven’t sent one in recent memory.  Only Parx communicates at all.  The only way we can cover racing is via reporters at the tracks.  It’s very expensive and difficult to do that, so it often doesn’t get done.

Other successful equestrian events send press releases before, during and after, and provide results and photos.  They market to horse people (unfortunately often ONLY to horse people, but that’s another editorial) and the horse people attend—even if it’s not their discipline.  How otherwise would these events continue to exist?

Horse people like horse sports.  They can appreciate a racehorse even if their equine is a mini.  Racing would be a great social outlet for horse enthusiasts, and even the less horsey friends who would surely tag along – if only they were invited.

Readers – please weigh in on this.  Would you attend racing if you were more aware of it?  Do you understand betting?  What would attract you to an afternoon or evening at your local track? Visit us on facebook to submit your comments, or email to PAEquest@aol.com.