Updated on 05/26/2011 5:02PM

Thinking outside the oval to draw new crowds


Allen Gutterman, the vice president of marketing at Santa Anita Park, fired off a note to Tom Chuckas the other day congratulating Pimlico’s president on his Preakness Day crowd and the apparent success of an infield promotion that got almost as much attention as the race itself.

In essence, this was kind of like Adrian Gonzalez telling David Ortiz nice rope after lining one off the Green Monster at Fenway. Both Gutterman and Chuckas work for tracks in the Frank Stronach ownership group. Still, as a marketing man fighting his own tough battles out West, Gutterman likes to acknowledge any promotional victory in the face of adversity.

“Tom’s been under pressure the last two years from the taste-makers, while he’s fighting to get his people back,” Gutterman said. “I applaud him for not backing down.”

The people to which Gutterman referred are those who traditionally spend the day of the Preakness in the Pimlico infield, for the most part oblivious to the Thoroughbred activity surrounding them. They had been alienated two years ago when Pimlico clamped down on the practice of bringing your own beer. The result was an infield scene looking like something out of a dreary day camp for the homeless and misbegotten.

The policy was reversed in 2010, the old infield crowd came back, and then Pimlico doubled-down this year with the Kegasus campaign, which put a guy in half a horse suit as spokes-mascot for the thrills of guilt-free tap beer. The taste-makers to which Gutterman referred included local politicians and civic leaders who were concerned about the image Baltimore would be projecting with the unbridled promotion of a Preakness bacchanal. A huge crowd showed up anyway, and somehow the republic survived.

If nothing else, the Kegasus campaign proved that the most successful, mainstream marketing of horse racing events today is about marketing anything but horse racing.

Gutterman found this out the hard way at Santa Anita, where his most successful promotions over the past several years have had nothing to do with the beauty of the facility, the lure of gambling riches, or the longshot chance Zenyatta might show up.

“We’re always looking for more things to get people to the races,” Gutterman said. “The racing has been taken for granted unfortunately.”

Which is why his best promotions have been beer and food.

A series of microbrew festivals co-promoted by a local rock radio station were a hit until there was a scuffle and local police descended upon the racetrack. Adios microbrew festivals.

Now Gutterman’s team is basking in the glow of the food truck concept, which was well received at the Santa Anita meet earlier this year.

“Working guys who’ve spent years at plants or on construction sites say, ‘Oh, you’ve got the roach coaches,’ ” Gutterman said with a laugh. “ ‘No, no, no,’ I tell them. ‘This is gourmet food, with real chefs inside.’

“There’s only so much left to invent, so it becomes how you reinvent,” he went on. “Like Lady Gaga is Madonna is Cher is Mae West – there’s always been some outrageous woman performer who played up sex as much as they could. Someone in every generation seems to figure that out.

“One of the tenets of marketing is that any time you take something out of its natural habitat and put it somewhere else, it creates a stir,” Gutterman said. “That’s what has happened with the gourmet food trucks – finding them in an exotic setting like Santa Anita. Bu the same token, if you took horse racing, and put it on Venice Beach, with jockeys in Speedos . . . .

“But you can’t, of course,“ Gutterman added. “We’ve tried to use technology to move the playing field, by bringing it into your home. But that’s not the same as experiencing the sport. It’s very hard to do, because horse racing is not a moveable feast.”

Compared with the Preakness infield campaign, there is no real difference in philosophy in marketing a gourmet food truck event to a consumer base outside racing circles.

“For the Preakness infield, you know this particular audience could care less whether or not there’s racing going on,” Gutterman noted. “They just know that on the third Saturday in May they can go crazy on national television. When we do a food truck festival here, there were spots on TV where we hardly mentioned there was racing here that day. We don’t raise prices, and the people who come think five dollars to get in and four dollars to park is a real bargain.”

The goal being to get people into the racetrack. If those new customers bet, fine. If they don’t, they’ve still spent their money.

“As revenue from racing dissipates, you look elsewhere,” Gutterman said. “That’s the reality. Although we’re not about to miss the chance to make new fans. We’ve got two food truck dates at the fall meet – one on Breeders’ Cup Preview Saturday and one on the day of the Breeders’ Cup. I’m hoping to provide a handout that basically tells people, ‘Don’t worry about what you don’t know. There are winners inside of this. Pick a handicapper to follow and bet a couple bucks.’ ”

They even have a mascot, or at least a logo.

“Yes,” Gutterman said. “It’s a horse driving a truck, although I don’t think we can play that for real.”