06/27/2012 9:33AM

Racing's Older Fanbase

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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.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Michael, Admittedly I am posting late. I am one of those 50 somethings that started out with high school buddies driving to Monticello on a Friday Night for something to do. It was those very same "Old Guys" there who taught us the nuances of horse racing. There's a history to this sport like none other, long history about great horses or jockeys and short history dealing with the more immediate need for finding that one stat in past performances to give a horse an edge that day. Mr Aureillo misses the point, being a late 20 or 30 something you have things like family and career going on, when the kids were young a break for my wife and I would be an occassional trip to Belmont for that nights card and dinner. The summer Lake George trip would always include a day at the track with the kids and a Sunday afternoon with my Father and Father-In-Law. Going to the track was an event for my family, I treated it like going to a ballgame, and like baseball you become a student of the game. We spend a few weekends in Saratoga during the season each year and yes my kids bring their kids now too. Mr Auriello should spend a few days up there, he'll see the mix of young and old, which is a very healthy mix. Which, like it or not I have now become that old guy explaining things on the board to a bunch of 20 somethings having a day out.Those kids will never get it right anyway!
soto More than 1 year ago
The blame is also on the management of today's tracks, especially NYRA. Forget the younger crowd, they are chasing away the experienced hard-core middle-aged fans. At times, I like to wager on the Pick-6. NYRA is concerned not with the future, but how much $$ we can haul in right now. For the past 2 years they are filling races in the Pick-6 sequence with a huge amount of Maiden runners. As I write this(July 10th) I am looking at a huge carryover in Belmont's Pick-6 for July 11th. FOUR of the races in the Pick-6 sequence are MAIDEN races. I will not play such a scheme as this; but the syndicates will. they might hit it, but either way, NYRA gets a bigger handle and the average bettor who has supported them will fall by the wayside.
Tom More than 1 year ago
Mike, I am with you all the way, I too have been hearing this for close to 50 years. I started going at age 13 and was lucky enough to see the 2 greatest thourghbreds of all time bar none, Kelso & Dr. Fager.
william More than 1 year ago
i think that horse racing for me is much much better than it was 60 years ago when i started betting in uk now i bet one day a week on my pc i can bet any race in the world without traveling hours the weather is always great i can see the whole race dont have to worry about newspapers on seats have plenty of good food and drink love the stakes 10c sup 50c tris and pick 3s and 4s show a profit most years and its fun gets me away from the wife and shopping ps love this paper william
D More than 1 year ago
No one talks about it but if you look this sport that we love so much it started to decline once the Breeders Cup was brought to us. It took allot of huge Grade 1 races each year that could help a horse become horse of the year and made them just preps in a since. Keeneland's fall meet anymore is opening weekend and that is it. Once their opening weekend stakes have run the other stakes for the rest of the meet mean nothing anymore because anyone who is anyone is running in the BC. In my opinion all the BC did was give racing one more day such as Derby, each year you can sell big money tickets to people who do not visit a racetrack any other time of the year. Do not get me wrong there are a ton of things wrong with the sport of horse racing but the Breeders Cup is a huge problem that no one wants to admit. I know I like it too, large fields great odds.. but without the BC American Grade 1 and Grade 2 races throughout the year could be just that.... large fields again and great odds. And more important not just two days a year in November, but at a racetrack near you couple times a month. Racing was better before the BC simple as that... go to a track and ask most people sitting there on a Thursday afternoon, Stakes races meant something back then. Now you cant get 20,000 in the seats of a major NY Grade 1 Stakes race unless you offer $1 Beer and Hot Dogs! HANDLE (amount wagered) is what matters in this game. Attract big quality fields to your stakes program and the money will follow simple as that, just look at the Breeders Cup if you do not believe me...
John More than 1 year ago
The basic problem is the older demographic which ties into lack of attendance at most tracks. Any marketing effort should look to fix those two problems.
Ray Murray More than 1 year ago
Here are some other ideas on how to boost attendance/interest in the sport. My apologies if some of these have already been mentioned: • How about eliminating weekday racing (gasp!) altogether? Do we really need to be producing six horse fields on a Wednesday afternoon, when 98% of your target demographic is at work? That’s just stupid, in my opinion. • Move the races to evenings and weekends. How about Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons? People usually aren’t working at those times and are looking for something fun to do. Some would call this catering to your audience. • The pace of a day (make that evening) at the races is too slow for most folks these days. How about running 15 to 20 races on one card (gasp!), and running them every 15 minutes instead of every 30. I love the NFL, but if I had to wait 25-30 minutes between plays I would sell my season tickets in a heartbeat. I know running this many races in one night would offer logistical challenges, and that the handle per race might suffer, but these can be overcome. We are talking survival…and changes need to be made and accepted. • Make the racetrack a fun place to be. I once went to Canterbury Downs for the Claiming Crown and they had a lively bar scene (because they race at night, when people aren’t working) and had a boxing ring trackside where they would stage Golden Gloves fights between races. The races were very well attended and the average age was probably around 30. And the racing product was terrible…but it didn’t seem to matter to the people there. • Find a way to increase rivalries. Maybe regulate the breeding industry so that a horse who retires to stud as a three year has a lower breeding fee than one who retires as a four year old. Maybe tie the stud fee limit to the number of races run and the amount of money won…making it financially less rewarding to retire a promising three year old at the first sign of a pending hangnail. • Bring back a significant bonus system for the Triple Crown. How about $5M to the horse who performs best in all three races…with the caveat that they must compete in all three. This will increase rivalries, and increase the chances of a horse winning the Triple Crown by making an owner think twice before skipping the Preakness so that they have a fresh spoiler horse in the Belmont (i.e. Union Rags). • Find a way to regionalize the sport. In the MidAtlantic, PA competes with NJ which competes with DE which competes with MD which competes with WV – all for horses and dollars. I am sure that in a way, each state would love to see their neighboring states’ racing programs fail…so that they could benefit. Needless to say, this is very bad for the sport. States need to work together to provide a quality product that works for everyone and attracts fans. Do we really need live racing at DE, Parx, Penn National and Monmouth all at the same time? Especially when no track can attract enough horses to fill their races? • Ditch the dependency on slots. Asking for slots to keep your business alive is like begging to be put on a ventilator to help you breathe when you should be making smarter lifestyle choices. Eventually, someone is going to start talking about pulling the plug. This is already happening in PA and other states. Racing needs to get strong on its own. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the Casino owners lobbying to get live racing in order to help supplement their decreasing revenues from slots? As is human nature, everyone looks out for their own interests. Horsemen don’t want to run at night because it means too long a day. Track owners don’t want to give up weekday racing for fear that the heavy betting professional gamblers will take their money elsewhere. And states want to protect the rights and livelihood of their horsemen, even if that means contributing to the decline of the entire industry. It’s time for people to wake up, work together and embrace change. End of rant. 
mrm More than 1 year ago
I agree completely about weekday races. I turned on TVG the other day where they were loading the gate for a 5 horse Mdn 20m race at Monmouth [2 had scratched]. WOW what excitement! It's pathetic.
WARRIOR More than 1 year ago
Ever see that movie Casino, made about 20 years ago, when the Robert De Niro character recognizes the skim going on at Las Vegas casinos? Ever since I worked at NYRA back in the 1990's former chairman Jack Dreyfus and I recognized that exotic betting was killing the sport. It just opens the door for skim via staged and choreographed races strategically planned an advance. The rigorous honesty of the game has been lost, which is why there are fewer people betting on it. Even attendance and handle at Saratoga are In Decline. Thus, the government now wants to bring socialism into to cure the competitive sport of horse racing in the competitive city of New York in what used to be the competitive country the United States of America. Competition is good.
ML-NJ More than 1 year ago
Update ... At Monmouth yesterday an extended family sat near where I was sitting. There were four children in the group, the oldest of them being a girl about 12 or 13 years old. SHE was the one explaining to the adults what a "trifecta" is. SHE could be seen studying her program between races, and SHE had a big smile on her face after several of the races.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
the real problem with racing is that its crooked,if you fixed the roulette wheel or the cards at the casino the state regulators and fbi would shut you down.yet races are fixed by betting rings in cahoots with jockeys and trainers everyday and nothings done,until some people get arrested and thrown out nothing is ging to change and people will continue leaving.today a novice come to the track and is told imediatly by the old timers that its all fixed,why would they put down real money,ON SOMETHING THATS FIXED,YOU WOULD NOT DO THAT AT A CASINO WHY DO THEY EXPECT ANY DIFFERENCE IN RACING.