03/09/2016 2:04PM

Fornatale: Star time for tournament players


As a guy who writes about tournaments and tournament players for a living, I love to see the horse racing industry celebrate its most critical asset: horseplayers themselves. I consider it an honor to be involved in Daily Racing Form’s efforts to honor the achievements of players on a weekly basis. Additionally, writing about successful players is simply a lot of fun.

So it will come as no surprise when I tell you that I’m a fan of the new DRF Tournaments ad campaign. You’ve probably already seen it. Mixed in with the pictures in the Form of great equine athletes and horsemen, you’re seeing actual horseplayers.

The campaign features eight players with tournament bona fides: Eric Bialek, Kevin Cox, Mark Danbom, Emily Gullikson, Alex Larmey, Blake Jessee, Jonathan Kinchen, and Barry Spears. “We wanted to do something special to celebrate tournament players — to give them the same profile that, say, fantasy sports players or poker players get,” said Jordan Goldberg, vice president of digital marketing and e-commerce at DRF.

Part of my job at DRF is to help determine which tournament player are stars. If our readers can learn something from these other players that will help them in their tournament play and/or handicapping, that’s all the better. With DRF close to launching its own new tournament platform, the timing for the campaign was perfect.

“We want to bring more players into tournaments, both existing horseplayers and folks new to the sport,” said DRF’s chief digital officer Todd Unger. “The idea here was to show why these players love tournaments and to demonstrate these are mainstream folks with a passion for competition and real love for the game.”

One thing that struck me about the pictures taken for the campaign is that they show horseplayers in ways we’re not used to seeing them. I asked Goldberg if this was intentional. “Yes, absolutely,” he said. “We wanted to establish a look that really captured the competitive spirit of the tournament player and portrayed them in an aspirational way that might challenge how people typically think about horseplayers.”

In other words, he wanted horseplayers to look as cool as they actually are. To do so, they chose to shoot on location. Goldberg again: “We thought it would be neat to feature players on their favorite or hometown tracks, as a way to bridge the worlds of online and offline horseplaying.”

This wasn’t always easy, as it involved travel around the country and a few run-ins with the weather. “Our first shoot was at Keeneland for Breeders’ Cup with Jonathon Kinchen and Blake Jessee,” Goldberg said. “It had rained pretty heavily that week in Lexington, and the place was a muddy mess. Apologies to Jonathon and Blake for ruining their shoes!"

The other notable aspect of the campaign is that the players featured in it so far are on the younger side of the spectrum. “We wanted to portray the diversity of today’s horseplayers and go against the grain of the typical stereotype,” said Unger.

The campaign isn’t over yet. In the coming weeks and months look for some “old guard” tournament players to appear alongside these “young Turks.” There has been some discussion about pitting the groups against one another in a Ryder Cup-esque handicapping contest. Now that will be really fun to cover.