12/05/2012 6:43PM

Symposium gets tale of low-tech marketing


TUCSON, Ariz. - Anyone who enjoyed "Thirty Tons a Day," the little-read but peculiarly seminal racetrack management book, probably had their senses tingling on Wednesday afternoon at the Global Symposium on Racing and Gaming during a presentation by Kelly Spencer, the marketing manager at tiny Grand River Raceway in rural Ontario.

For those who have not read the book, "Thirty Tons a Day" - the title refers to the amount of manure produced by a track during a 24-hour period - was a shoes-on-the-apron look at running a racetrack written by Bill Veeck, the late major-league-baseball team owner who also managed Suffolk Downs for two years, beginning in 1969. The book is a fascinating look at Veeck's attempts to market and reorient a struggling track using an array of sometimes madcap but almost always earnest promotions.

During her presentation, Spencer detailed her efforts to stretch a small marketing budget into an outsized campaign to generate a positive image for the half-mile harness track, which conducts 67 live racing dates a year.

She works with the local chamber of commerce to fill the track's grandstand on Biz Night. She gets drivers to appear on in-house videos and encourages them to be themselves so that patrons get an idea of the drivers' personalities. She sponsors costume contests based on horse's names (a child dressed as "Tragically Ship" created a costume of a ship missing half of its bulwarks).

She invites dozens of patrons into the winner's circle ("No one's gotten killed yet."). She requires employees to take a class introducing them to horsemanship so "they get it." She conducts mock game shows on the apron requiring patrons to guess the price of an item from a local tack shop, including - and here's where you might particularly think of Veeck - the cost of a "fake vagina" that is used in breeding sheds for Standardbred studs.

"Okay, management wasn't too happy about that one," Spencer said, as the audience laughed. "But really, you need that or else our whole industry, at least the Standardbred industry, doesn't exist."

All in all, Spencer's presentation was a heartwarming look at how racing is sometimes conducted in the more rural areas of the country, harkening back to a time when county fairs were a significant conduit for creating the next generation of racing fans. During a ten-minute video produced by Spencer - in addition to coordinating all of the track's marketing, publicity, advertising, and public-relations efforts, she oversees the video production department - both patrons and employees are shown smiling, hugging, cheering, and unabashedly enjoying themselves, all at a facility that has far less going for it than 99 percent of U.S. Thoroughbred tracks, most of which have cut their ontrack marketing budgets to the bone over the past decade.

"Our focus is very much about live racing," Spencer said. "That is what we're passionate about, and we are committed in every single way to creating new fans."

Spencer appeared on a panel that also featured marketing officials from Keeneland - which, despite all its admirable, well-thought-out marketing efforts, could probably just open the doors without suffering a serious decline in attendance - and the Jockey Club, which is devoting $10 million to marketing the sport through social networking and other expensive, exquisitely metric-ed projects. (John Hartig, the chief executive of Daily Racing Form, also appeared on the panel.) The contrast between the strategies employed by Spencer and her better-heeled peers made for a great illustration of the differences between small and large tracks, as well as the fact that big tracks probably could take a lesson from the efforts employed by passionate, well-meaning officials at facilities well off the beaten path.

"I think we forget that we have a very unique product," Spencer said, during the presentation. "We want to deliver an experience that is worth cheerleading."

Here's the bitter kicker, though: Grand River Raceway is one of 17 racetracks in Ontario that may lose its license to operate slot machines through the provincial government's plan to shift gambling resources to private companies. Grand River has a license to operate 250 machines, and a significant portion of its budget is provided by the machines. The track is owned by the not-for-profit Grand River Agricultural Society, which is akin to a county fair board in the United States.

"Right now, I can't tell you anything for sure," Spencer said after her presentation, when asked if Grand River planned to stay open if it couldn't work out a deal with the government. "All I can tell you is that there is a group of racetrack managers, a regulator, horsemen, employees, and other members of the Ontario racing industry who are trying to negotiate the best possible scenario for us."

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the author of "Thirty Tons a Day." The book was written by Bill Veeck, not his son, Mike Veeck.