04/01/2011 3:08PM

WinStar program allows fans to be part of the action

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WinStar Farm, the Central Kentucky breeding and racing operation that has bred two Kentucky Derby winners, has launched a program that allows racing fans to participate in a range of the farm’s activities – including naming foals and attending races in the WinStar box – without owning a piece of the farm itself.

The program, launched this week and called Stablemates, is one of a handful of new outreach programs that are attempting to create new fans and solidify existing ones at a time when the racing industry is trying to reverse the erosion of its fan base and a rapidly dwindling market share.

Whether the efforts will be successful is not yet clear, but the outreach programs are demonstrating that individual actors in the racing industry – in the absence of a coordinated national marketing strategy – are attempting to harness new technologies and the low-cost marketing power of the internet and social-networking sites in experiments to attract and retain fans.

Keeneland, for example, will launch an interactive video game at the start of its spring meet April 8 that will allow fans at no cost to select three horses in each race, with points accumulated based on the horses’ finishes. The game is tied into the track’s Facebook page, which has just over 80,000 members, and it allows its users to notify their friends when their selections have earned trophies. The game includes prizes for participants who accumulate the most points for each racing day and for the meet overall.

“Keeneland loves to do things like this,” said Julie Balog, Keeneland’s director of communications. “We love to be an incubator, a lab of sorts.”

The Stablemates program has no precedent. Fans can sign up to be a member for free, enabling them to play any of the games and contests tied into the farm’s website. But the program also includes three levels of paid membership, with the highest level giving its members access to the farm’s luxury suites at Keeneland and Churchill Downs and, among a panoply of other entitlements, the ability to attend a foaling at the farm.

“There’s nothing like it out there, as far as we know,” said Robert Hammond, the farm’s director of stallion seasons and bloodstock. “It’s obviously promotional, it gets the WinStar name out there, but it’s also encouraging people to become more involved in the industry, to do the things that they wouldn’t get to do anywhere else.”

The highest level of membership, Grade 1, comes at an unadvertised price, and Hammond declined to provide the cost. But the list of amenities, if fully exploited, would certainly add up to thousands of dollars a year.

The second level of membership costs $299.95 annually and includes complimentary tours of the farm, complete with picnic lunch; invitations to the farm’s annual party; and eligibility for drawings to use the farm’s luxury suites, among other amenities. The third level, costing $99.95 a year, is a scaled-down version of the second level.
Hammond said the program was not designed to turn a profit. The farm had to add staff to administer the program and cater to its members, he said, and the entire program took six months to develop.

Since it was launched this week, Hammond said “hundreds” of people have signed up for free membership.

“We’re just hoping that the participants get to experience the whole gamut” of the racing industry, he said.