05/22/2009 12:00AM

Racing doesn't need artificial flash


NEW YORK - What is horse racing?

One would think that the British, the people who invented the sport, would be the last on Earth to have doubts about the answer. Yet the British Jockey Club has just concluded the first part of a near million-dollar investigation intended to redefine the game according to officially up-to-date marketing principles.

The buzzword used by the Jockey Club's marketing research firm, Harrison Fraser, should strike fear into the hearts of every owner, breeder, trainer, jockey, hotwalker, bettor, and parimutuel clerk in the world. The suits want to "re-brand" British racing. There is talk of turning the leading British raceourses into some kind of Premier League, a la soccer. But horse racing is not soccer and never will be.

After $375,000 worth of question-asking, Harrison Fraser figures that the people betting on British racing and attending British racecourses are too old and too male. The firm says they are "tired, sexist, insular, and dull." Apparently they don't smile enough and speak a language that cannot be understood by hip-hoppers and heavy metalists.

These louts, who for decades have provided the foundation of the British racing and betting industries, have been identified as "Brians." Harrison Fraser would like to see more "Bens" at the track and in the betting shops. These are the near-perfect types who may not know the front end from the back end, but are perceived by marketing mavens as "cool and fresh, intelligent, likeable, athletic, good fun."

Perhaps they are being confused with the youthful little angels who make attending English League soccer matches such an adventure.

Well, if you had the choice of queueing up for a bet or quaffing a beer with someone who is cool, fresh, and intelligent as opposed to a sexist dullard, whom would you choose? Give me the sexist dullard any day. He just may have an inside line on the winner of the next race.

In fact, Harrison Fraser's super hip way of pigeonholing racegoers smacks of youth culture elitism, the kind that has led Hollywood to provide the world with rubbish like "Terminator 2," 3, 4, 5, and up, all the way to "Salvation."

There is no question that racing needs to attract a younger crowd with greater numbers of the female sex involved, and that is an even more urgent requirement in America than in Britain. But Harrison Fraser is not going to put more bodies into seats or more pounds into bookies' satchels by grafting onto racing mumbo-jumbo, magic-mirror marketing techniques. Its report focuses on increasing betting revenue and getting more young people involved in racing. Worthy goals indeed, but that covers only two-thirds of the picture.

In the British racing daily the Racing Post, Brough Scott wrote last week, "Racing offers three different activities: a social day out, a betting game, and the sport of equine athletics."

A more perfect definition of horse racing has never been stated with greater precision. In Britain, there has been of late an attempt to attract a more youthful element to the track, but so far the newcomers have displayed little real interest in racing. The result has been an increase in numbers at racecourses of what the British call a yob, i.e., a young person, male or female, who takes too much drink too quickly and proceeds to make life miserable for everyone within his or her shouting range. They provide the antithesis of "a social day out."

As in America, the British have also perfected the art of giving players the opportunity to bet nonstop on racing from before noon until after midnight. This never-ending whirlwind of gambling activity, seen by American tracks and British bookies alike as a boon, may, in fact, be a long-term drag on racing. The more betting opportunities made available to an aging, sexist audience, the faster the tap-out rate. More importantly, the plethora of tracks and wagers available is very likely a turn-off to newcomers, many of whom are already overwhelmed by racing's long learning curve.

In America, while we provide ample betting opportunities, we have yet to address the issue of younger racegoers. The NTRA's infamous "Go, Baby, Go!" campaign, a perfect example of youth culture marketing razzle-dazzle, fizzled faster than an eased-up also-ran. It seems to have escaped both the NTRA and Harrison Fraser that the sport of horse racing itself is the greatest marketing tool the game has. When properly presented to the public along with a mixture of social conviviality like we get on Derby Day and at Saratoga and Del Mar, betting on the races becomes the most civilized of all sporting endeavors.

And we don't need marketing researchers to tell us that.