Racing Had Momentum After the Kentucky Derby. Now What?

In the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby, I firmly believed that there was a chance for racing to capitalize on mainstream attention.

Everyone was talking about it, and Maximum Security and Country House, forever linked by a disqualification among the most controversial in racing history, could lock up again in the Preakness. Such a rematch would be one of the most anticipated in the game, and the sport would have two weeks to market to an intrigued fan base eager to know more about it.

Swing and a miss.

Maximum Security is being held out of the Preakness. Country House got sick and is now being pointed to the Belmont. As a result, public interest for the Preakness is at a low, and the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown has a decidedly “meh” feel to it among prospective fans the sport cannot afford to lose.

Please don’t get that statement twisted. The Preakness could be a fun betting race, with lots of different directions to go in if you’re not crazy about likely favorite Improbable. Preakness week also features an array of high-quality races that provide plenty of attractive wagering options for handicappers like me (and, I surmise, like most of my audience).

However, the general public could not possibly care less about the makeup of the Preakness, nor could they care less about the cornucopia of graded stakes races on Friday and Saturday at Old Hilltop. Saying otherwise is naïve, at best.

Casual fans of the sport have likely heard of four or five horses over the past year and a half: Justify, Accelerate, City of Light, Maximum Security, and Country House. The first three are retired, and the other two are on the bench. Stars make racing much easier to promote, but when horses run less and less (due to radical changes in the ways horses are bred and managed), there has to be a fallback plan in place.

Therein lies a bigger problem nobody is talking about. While the debate following the Kentucky Derby was endless, vicious, and unnecessarily vile at times, debates about how to actually grow the game in the wake of it have drawn crickets on social media. It shows a distinct lack of focus on what should be the biggest focus in racing: Getting new fans, drawing them in, and educating them so they have the most chance of coming back.

What are we, as a sport, doing to ensure that such a plan is in place? This question holds doubly true now that two of the biggest racing days of the year are without any sort of a Triple Crown storyline. We can talk about concerts, and food trucks, and hat contests, and things that look pretty on social media, but how does any of that affect racing for longer than one afternoon? More bluntly, how does any of that affect handle, AT ALL?

Now that Maximum Security and Country House are both out of the Preakness, I challenge you to find a bigger public interest storyline than, “The Stronach Group wants to leave Pimlico behind and move the Preakness to Laurel.” Meanwhile, the Met Mile on Belmont Day could draw McKinzie, Mitole, and Coal Front, which for my money makes it the main event on that program (as opposed to a race for 3-year-olds going a distance they are not at all bred to handle). Tell that to the general public, and the response is, “why should I care?”

What are we, as a sport, doing to answer that question? We did a lot in the 72 hours after the Kentucky Derby to try to convince people that the DQ was either the right call or the wrong call. If we channeled half of that energy into actually marketing the sport the way it should be marketed, I’m convinced we’d see substantial results long-term. Combine that with breeding horses for stamina and soundness instead of pure speed, and we may actually have ways to market both the sport and the best horses in it.

It’s naïve to think the Preakness matters as much as it did to the novice racing fan before Maximum Security and Country House defected from the field. It doesn’t. We can be as positive and optimistic as we want about how it still holds historical significance as the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, but such statements fall on deaf ears to a public conditioned only to care about the sport on its biggest days. That isn’t me being negative, or pessimistic. That’s a fact, one that racing has brought onto itself as top-notch horses transitioned from running 10 to 12 times per year a generation ago to running four to six times per year while their connections said, “We’re training him up to…”.

The answer to the, “now what?,” question should be, “well, this coming week has a lot of really good horses in action that you could see later this year.” Except it doesn’t. There are five stakes races Saturday at Belmont Park, and they boast a combined total of 31 entries. Only one of those races (the Man o’ War) will have more than six horses going postward.

I’ve worked in marketing at a number of different businesses. The keys to a successful campaign are capitalizing on momentum created from prior steps in the process. Racing had chances to do that this time around, and it didn’t.

I’m worried about how many more chances the industry will have to do that.

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