06/27/2012 9:33AM

Racing's Older Fanbase


I saw a report yesterday (Tuesday) on bloodhorse.com on the NYRA presenting its new marketing director to the Franchise Oversight Board, the New York state entity that, as its title suggests, oversees the NYRA.

What struck me about this report was not who the new appointee was (for the record, he is Rodnell Workman, a former executive for Madison Square Garden and the New York Giants). What caught my eye was a quote in the middle of the piece from Richard Aurelio, an oversight board member, speaking about what he perceives to be the difficulty marketing Thoroughbred racing.

“It seems the principal focus has got to be on the track getting a new generation of fans,” Aurelio was quoted as saying. “That should be the major priority of any marketing campaign. The sport is dying. Every time you look at the obituary page you’re losing a racing fan.”

Maybe it’s a failing on my part, but I must admit, this sentiment makes me angry. Here’s why:

I was hopelessly bitten by the racing bug at a young age. It was partially in my blood. My father was a day/night flat, harness, and greyhound bettor, as well as a fancier of certain card games. But my interest focused right in on Thoroughbred racing. I was smitten by the history of the sport. But I was really lured in by the magic of past performances, which tell such a big story in such a tiny little space, and by obvious extension, attracted to the intellectual pursuit that is handicapping.

Even though it was obvious very early on that I was a goner, it did not stop well-intentioned folks from trying to steer me in the “right” direction. I remember vividly one early summer day at Suffolk Downs when, in the absence of my father (he must have been up at the windows making a bet), a friend of his put his arm around my shoulder and said:

“Take a look around (the grandstand). What do you see?”

I told him what I saw. “I see a bunch of old (near 60-something) guys,” I said.

“Exactly,” my dad’s friend said. “And in 10 to 15 years they’ll all be dead, and so will this game.”

That was well over 40 years ago.

My father’s friend lacked tact, but I do think in his way, he meant well. It might seem odd now, but this was a time when there was still a stigma attached to going to the track. Much of the general population thought people who went to the track and gambled were low class and shiftless, and akin to circus people, no offense to circus people. But the point dad’s friend was trying to make (obviously incorrectly) was this game was best avoided because it had no future. Its patrons were old, and it didn’t look like there was anyone around to replace them when they moved on to the big track in the sky.

This was the first time I heard this. But it turns out this line had been around for a long time even back then. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time I heard it, either. As evidenced by the bloodhorse.com report, this canard somehow still has legs, which is why it is so maddening to hear a person in a position of authority perpetuate it.

No one, certainly not me, is suggesting that the cultivation of a younger fan base isn’t worthwhile. Of course it is. And if you get lucky and lock a few younger fans in, you will have a group of fans you can rely on for decades – providing they are treated halfway decently along the way. But to infer that aiming young is the only hope is absurd. The game might be contracting, but it is not dying. Even in slumping times, annual total handle is around $10 billion. That’s not dying.

While it is true that Thoroughbred racing is in a far different position than it was in 40-odd years ago, primarily because folks have other options for disposable income earmarked for gambling, I believe one thing remains true: For most people, Thoroughbred racing is an acquired taste. In most cases, you have to be at a certain station in life to have the maturity to appreciate and accept the intellectual challenge of handicapping. Plus, you have to have the disposable income, and, almost as critically, the time to do something about it. Because of that, the audience the game should be targeting at least as vigorously as the young crowd is that group of 40- to 50-somethings. This is the group that is more likely to actually patronize the game once or twice a month as opposed to once or twice a year. The kids are grown, careers are established. They have the time.

To say that Thoroughbred racing is dying because its audience is older is far too simplistic, and betrays a lack of nuanced understanding of the game. Thoroughbred racing has always had an older audience. And it’s pretty scary that at least one member of the Franchise Oversight Board apparently doesn’t know that.