Monday, August 25, 2008

Great Racing Can Produce Permanent Fans

What a wonderful weekend of racing! I thought we had seen the race of the year in the Alabama when Proud Spell had to go to the bottom of her well to emerge victorious. But then on Friday we were treated to the Ginger Punch's win by a whisker in the Personal Ensign! On Saturday Porte Bonheur's 1/2 length victory over Indyanne in the Victory Ride continued the excitement of stakes level drama that peaked with Colonel John eking out a very gutsy two inch win over Mambo in Seattle in The Travers Stakes! As if that wasn't enough, on Sunday, Whatsthescript rallied for a 3/4 length decision in the Del Mar Mile H. Yet, the excitement still wasn't over. In the weekend's GI finale, as it approached 10 pm on the east coast, Garret Gomez capped his million dollar weekend by guiding Go Between to a thrilling neck victory over Well Armed in the Breeder's Cup "win and your in" Pacific Classic (g.I). If this kind of racing doesn't get your blood boiling nothing will. If this type of excitement doesn't create new fans, nothing will.

Can any sport deliver as much excitement as often as racing did this weekend? Not a chance!That is what is so very special about this sport. Every race presents the possibility of the drama we saw in so many of this past weekends stakes races. Certainly the fact that the races mentioned were stakes adds to the drama, but this same drama is played out at every level, from the $2,500 claiming ranks up to the Grade I, everyday in racing. It is a can't miss formula that just needs to find an outlet to bring it back into mainstream consciousness. To do that cooperation is needed. The tracks and ADW's and their affiliates need to understand that they are going to be more successful if they work together rather than competing for the same customers. To appeal to a mass television audience I believe that means speeding up the sport. At the track the 20 - 30 minutes between races poses no problems but on t.v. it is just too long. Something along the lines of the sixty minute pick six needs to be instituted within the industry. Staggered post times and stakes level races could be the basis for a 60-90 minute telecast every Saturday. Yes, TVG and HRTV do give us most of the races but I am speaking of network television to promote racing to the masses; those that are not already fans. Baseball had done it for years with the 'game of the week'. Football accomplishes this by the very nature of the game being a once a week event. Racing has a better, more exciting, year round product that needs to be packaged better to grow its' fan base. It would be great if this could be sold to one of the big networks but ESPN is almost as good. If racing wasn't such an enigma to people more would be drawn to it and become true fans.

Before I got hooked on racing I, like many others non-fans, would watch out of curiosity, the Kentucky Derby and, perhaps, the Preakness and Belmont if there was some excitement surrounding a horse but that was the limit of my experience with horseracing. I think it was probably the limit of televised horse racing as well. It was a world that seemed indecipherable and unapproachable and those telecasts certainly didn't do much to change those impressions. It was not until attending the races that I became a fan. While nothing can be a substitute for being at the track and seeing and experiencing those magnificent animals up close, racing of the quality of this past weekend could undoubtedly light some fires. But how do we keep that flame ablaze? When will the next televised event occur? Well, they don't know either! As a result, a person whose flame of imagination may have been lit by what they saw this weekend will be left alone without kindling and that flame will go out of it's own inertia. As an industry it is vital that once the nibble of a potential fan is felt the hook must be set. They have to have somewhere they can access the game again. Believe me, it will not be at an OTB or a casino; racing to the non-indoctrinated fan is too intimidating, not to mention those surroundings, to all but the most aggressive of personalities. Unless they have a friend or family member or readily available access to nurture that flame all is lost. It is in the nature of people to be discouraged by something that resists welcome. Perhaps the experience of one unsuccessful attempt to enter our world can be overcome but twice and you've probably lost a would-be fan, three times and we've probably created a detractor.

I remember when the light went off in my head. I at least had friends around that went to the races that I could ask questions of. Surprisingly, even most of them as fans couldn't answer the simplest of questions. For example: How does a horse get to run in the Kentucky Derby? Perhaps it was their uncertainty that drove me even more to find out the answers. I know this sounds unbelievable to a fan, especially those that grew up as fans, but I assure you this is the rule not the exception. While we don't need every potential fan to follow their newly found passion to the extent that I eventually did, we do need them to return again and again. The best way to do this is through familiarity and availability. Racing needs its own weekly show that highlights its' best. Perhaps "Five races at Five" on Saturday's at 5 O'clock. A race from Belmont, Keeneland, Calder, Santa Anita and Woodbine or whatever tracks are running at the particular time of year. While it doesn't sound like a lot of time between races it's enough to be informative without intimidation and to keep the fire burning. Knowing what races are coming next week and where they are able to watch them may, eventually, prompt many to seek out PP's for the next weeks races and take their interest to the next level: participation.

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