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Written by: Tom Amello and The Wizard

“It’s a fact, Jack.” Thoroughbred racing faces an existential challenge from legalized Sports Betting. Think about it…America is a “ball-sport” culture: soccer balls, footballs, baseballs, tennis balls, bowling balls, golf balls, lacrosse balls, ping pong balls, pools balls, squash balls, etc. From cradle to grave, it’s balls and ball sports. Unlike England, Europe and Australia, America’s sports culture has lost its historical connection to the horse. If Thoroughbred Racing is to survive and thrive as a niche sport, then the industry must reconnect the culture to the Equine athlete. Because there is no racing without gambling, that includes educating and turning casual fans into regular wagering horse players. 

Casual fans are both aware of and paying attention to Thoroughbred Racing during the 5-weeks of the Triple Crown Series, which began with the May 4 running of the Kentucky Derby. That casual attention span will continue, to a lesser degree, in the two weeks leading up to The Preakness Stakes. Should Derby winner Mystical Dan defeat the field of new shooters and Derby also-rans in the Preakness, casual fans anticipation and attention will shift to The Belmont Stakes with hopes of witnessing another Triple Crown winner.

However, whenever the Derby winner fails in The Preakness, the casual fan’s attention to The Belmont Stakes, and racing in general, dissipates. The New York Racing Association and its entire Belmont Stakes program are held hostage to the outcome of the Preakness Stakes. If the Preakness Stakes is the Triple Crown’s kid sister, a non-Triple Crown Bemont Stakes is the orphan child. If America’s ball sport culture and sports betting are the challenge, what, other than promotion via television and social media, could the industry do to draw the casual Triple Crown fan to a local track once the Triple Crown season is over?

I would argue there is no better time to grow the game than during the run-up to and duration of the Triple Crown. Triple Crown broadcast networks, Jockey Club, through its marketing arm at America’s Best Racing, NTRA, and regional racetracks should form a consortium. The mission of this group would be simple: implement clear, informative Fan Education initiatives to leverage the popularity of the Triple Crown series and grow the fan base. 

What national Fan Education initiatives might evolve? The Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown promotional spots and broadcasts would also include short video segments emphasizing understanding the basics of wagering, and the nuances of wagering on Triple Crown races. How about providing email access to downloadable files with wagering fundamentals and strategies…then mining the email list. Why not use this 5-week Triple Crown series to heighten interest in regional track options, inviting a Triple Crown TV audience of millions to experience “live” racing near their homes. Regional tracks would develop plans to enrich the experience for casual fans. Each year Thoroughbred Racing, through The Kentucky Derby and subsequent Triple Crown races, rises to the forefront of American sport…only to drop out of sight like the evening sun.

On the regional spectrum, Thoroughbred racing gets “newbies” and fans to the track…just look at big race day and festival events. The more pressing problem is what to do for “newbies” to enable and empower them to feel comfortable wagering, comfortable enough to come back sooner and more often. Most horse players I know were introduced to the game by someone, often older, who educated, mentored, and nurtured them. My point goes to the steep learning curve caused by the arcane numbers of past performances. Both the learning curve and the losing discourages “newbies” and drives them from the game. Track employees themselves must become educators, mentors, and nurturers.

My good college friend, the late Vic Zast, believed the new horse player must learn to “have fun while losing”, a brilliant insight. We all lose more often than we win. So, for “newbies” to become horse players, they MUST have some expectation that they can make winning or near-winning wagers. The fact is this: holding a ticket on a horse in contention from the sixteenth pole to the wire IS the “sizzle” this niche sport must sell. Think of the tight photo finish of this year’s Derby. How can a “newbie” “have fun while losing” if nearly always holding tickets on horses never in contention? Experienced players know ya gotta win and contend often enough to offset the inevitable non-winning/losing. Thus, the need for Fan Education and Player Development. 

The Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown series is an opportunity to reach out to casual fans with promotions to bring them to regional racing after the series is over. Regional “Big Race” days and festivals are the ground zero for meaningful Fan Education and Player Development programs. A consortium approach combining the popularity of the Triple Crown with local tracks and Fan Education and Player Development programs is a proactive initiative to grow the game.

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Last updated: February, 2024

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