To Promote Horseracing:
Follow The Money

Charles Carroll

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In an earlier column, I mentioned that we have been running a handicappers’ survey on DesertSea.Com.  The survey covers a number of topics, but one that piqued my interest enough so that I recently modified the survey questions, was the “ageing” of horse racing enthusiasts.

There have been gloomy predictions that this is a dying sport because up-and-coming younger players are not replenishing it and, as we geezers punch off the time clock, eventually there will be no one left to turn out the lights.

These predictions coincided with—caused—the formation of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) with a mandate to promote the sport.  As soon as there was an organization in place with some loose change to promote horse racing, everyone who loved the sport had an opinion on how it should be spent.  The diversity of opinions has not let up.

Like virtually every one else on this horseracing planet, I had strong opinions about the NTRA’s original “Go Baby Go!” TV ads, and that was specifically what prompted the changes in the handicappers’ poll.  I couldn’t find anyone—over or under 30—who could relate to the androgynous psycho-chick in the ads, so the campaign seemed to stumble out of the gates.  Moreover, I wasn’t at all sure that entering into head-to-head competition with every other sport and leisure activity for “Generation-X” was such a hot use of rare bucks.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve come in contact with players a few years older than me who seem to be having the most fun and, in some cases, showing excellent profit in their retirement years.  There seemed to be a pattern among players of getting introduced to the game early, paying less attention to it during their major career years, then returning to it full-force later, when there was the time and funds to do so.

If this pattern were real, then the demographics of horseracing would naturally show a large 55 to 75+ age group—but it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the prognosis was “terminal.”  It could simply mean that the age of in-coming serious players would be 55—not 25.  And, it would call for a more complex strategy for promoting horse racing than simply trying to get 25-year-olds in the gate for an afternoon of suds with their buds.

For this scenario, the trick for constantly replenishing the fan-base would be to introduce a love for horse racing early, seek to retain casual interest during career years, and then come back like gang-busters for “mature” players.  It seems mighty weird, but if you tripped to Jimmy Hendrix—and he was alive at the time—you are now in the latter group.

The following is tallied from the survey responses so far.  The results are not scientific because, as I also mentioned in an earlier column, people who make it to the site are probably more committed players, more attuned to the Internet, and so forth.

• The first “statistic” of note—to me, at least, because I anticipated the reverse—is that 64% say they never left the game, while 36% left for some significant time and then returned.  My sense on this is that it is a function of the nature of the players who make it to the Web site—being a more committed bunch.  If you could somehow poll the more general racing public, my guess is that the percentage that leave because of career and family to return later in life would be much higher.  Even so, 36% is big—certainly not a number the sport could afford to lose forever, so bringing them back alive is important.

• Of all players, 55% say they were introduced to the sport prior to their 21st birthday, and 67% were introduced to the sport by their parents.  Only 5% say they were introduced to the sport by watching it on TV!  Make what you wish of that.

• Other responses for introduction to the sport include: 10% had an interest in or association with horses (which was my own introduction), and 4% cited “Other.”  A common note with “Other” is “wanted to make money,” which is consistent with other findings below that, although people love this sport, profit motivation is a very strong factor.  (My favorite note on “introduction to the sport” is, “Through a grocery store game called ‘Let’s Go To The Races.’”  I happen to know that the guy who sent this response is a first-rate handicapper, so maybe we should find that game and revive it.)

• Again, parents figure prominently in how people first attended the track (as opposed to simply learning or hearing about horse racing).  55% indicate parents or older relatives took them to the track.  25% first attended with friends of the same age, and get this:  25% attended for the first time on their own.

• Although unscientific, 25% may be a very significant figure, because it supports the notion that horseracing is a much more profit-oriented sports activity than others.  While I have no comparable figures, it is likely that 25% is vastly more than would have attended their first football, baseball, or hockey game by themselves.  (It may also say something about one type of personality drawn to horse race betting.)

• It doesn’t quite fit my preconceived idea, but it is interesting that among the respondents, in addition to the 55% who say they were introduced to horseracing before age 21; another 32% were under age 35; and by age 45, 100% were already here.  Correspondingly, 63% were under 35 when they began seriously handicapping with a profit motive.

The outstanding figure for this entire subject is this:  72% of respondents say they are currently involved in horseracing with a strong profit motive.  This includes the categories of “professional players,” “retired with strong profit motive,” and “part-time player (otherwise employed) with strong profit motive.” 

The seriousness of the industry’s need to preserve and improve players’ ability to make a profit through reforms in take-out, miscellaneous charges, and fundamental customer service cannot be overemphasized, but for now, that’s a separate topic.

Since the profit motive (as most of us have always guessed) is so high among horseracing fans, my inclination has always been to wish the industry would loosen up and actively promote one simple fact: good horse players can develop a “positive edge.”

But, in retrospect, the whole “Go Baby Go!” thing is probably about as close to being on-target as they can get (without promising something it takes work and personal skill on the part of the fan to deliver).  The phrase itself does imply a profit motive.  It is aimed at the under-35 age group, where our survey shows serious profit motive handicapping begins.  And honestly—in deep retrospect now—the psycho-chick was more interesting than some generic prom-queen.

The other horse racing promotion campaign that has driven me bonkers over the years—because I love the sport and have a great love for the horses themselves—is that of the American Quarter Horse Association.  You probably haven’t heard much about it, because—well, that’s sort of a self-answering statement.

Quarter Horse racing is a potentially profitable sideline or, in some rare cases, a specialty for handicappers, and I truly enjoy the mixed Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse meets here in New Mexico.  These folks trademarked the word “American” into the name of their breed a few years ago so I’ll be careful when I say that if I could own only one horse to ride, it would be an “American Quarter Horse (™),” hands down. 

But, their advertising campaign!  ‘Lantic-goshen!  (I think that’s how they talk.)  Their flag-waving, wholesome, family-oriented, owner-oriented commercials for this profit-oriented, cigar-chomping—betting game—have always made my eyes roll back into my head.

But wait!  While writing this, I had a chilling thought:  our survey shows that parents are the introductory conduit for 67% of all horseplayers.  Do you suppose that I totally missed the subliminal angle of the AQHA’s ad campaign?  Could their portrayal of horseracing as an after-church activity for young parents pushing strollers actually be a cunning and cynical ploy to develop legions of future handicappers?  Nah.  No Way!


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