05/30/2016 9:15PM

Zoccali: The Harness Racing Kentucky Derby

Derick Giwner
The Hambletonian could be built into a Kentucky Derby-like event.

Right around this time every year, I usually read at least one article that outlines all of the things harness racing can learn from the Kentucky Derby.  The article ultimately poses the question, why can’t harness racing have an event like the Kentucky Derby?  To be fair, this is like the Arena Football League asking why they can’t have an event like the Super Bowl.

In other words, one of the major issues I have found within harness racing is a lack of consensus as to what the sport is and what the sport should or could be.  The Kentucky Derby, like the Super Bowl, is a brand, built up over decades of growth.  While the Kentucky Derby has always been a part of “Americana” and an extremely popular event, what it has grown into in the 21st Century is an event that appears on people’s “bucket lists.”  In other words, a person wants to say, “I have been to a Kentucky Derby,” regardless of their involvement or passion for horse racing.

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But the Kentucky Derby is much more than a race.  It’s a near week-long event.  In addition to almost 20 hours of television coverage throughout the course of the week (people in harness racing argue over funding a broadcast for one race), there are galas and banquets that not only attract racing enthusiasts from around the world but “A-List” celebrities as well.  This is because Churchill Downs has successfully identified the fact that there are two ways to market the Kentucky Derby, both as a horse race for gambles and as a posh and trendy event for those who just want the experience of being at the Kentucky Derby.

Ironically, being at the Kentucky Derby is not exactly a gambler’s dream.  Unless you are fortunate enough to be rubbing elbows with Tom Brady in The Mansion high atop the Churchill Downs clubhouse, you are likely rubbing elbows repeatedly with 170,000 fans and any attempt at real handicapping is a near impossibility.

Despite the challenges presented to the gambler on Derby Day, Churchill Downs has developed the Kentucky Derby brand in such a way that the biggest of celebrities want to attend, not just the race, but the dinners, the parties, etc.  These different events in the days and nights leading up to the Derby have a list of corporate sponsors longer than the Yellow Pages.

The development of this brand has taken nearly a generation and while harness racing has the foundation and potential in certain events like the Little Brown Jug and The Hambletonian, it is not something that can be developed overnight.  Considering “The Jug” takes place at an Ohio county fair, any “Derby aspirations,” are better served on an event with more commercial and metropolitan appeal, like The Hambletonian.

Obviously, even in the original Meadowlands grandstand, squeezing over 50,000 people in that facility was difficult, let alone 170,000.  But before focusing on attendance, in order to create an event that can develop into a brand, a major investment needs to be made into the event itself.  Two separate marketing teams should be formed, one to focus on promoting the racing and the other to focus on promoting the event, and these teams should exist in the harness racing industry and not left to just the racetrack hosting the event.  I won’t begin to pretend to know how best to promote the event, but I know it needs to be something that is posh and trendy and reaches well outside the boundaries of horse racing.

The irony lies in the fact that people within harness racing are looking to grow one of its races into a Derby-type event, but simultaneously voice opposition to contesting the Breeders Crown over two nights when it is held in the New York City metropolitan area.

Therefore, in harness racing, you have those who want to see a race like the Hambletonian turned into an event like the Kentucky Derby, and you have those who don’t want to spend any money on nationally-televised races, social media or developing events like the Breeders Crown into a multi-day event.

My advice to harness racing is that everyone within the industry needs to agree on what they want harness racing to be.  Do they want it to be able to play host to massive events that go well beyond racing or are they content with the current level of national and international exposure?

There aren’t many states where both thoroughbred and standardbred racing are equal in popularity.  In Europe, while France has the Prix d’Amerique, thoroughbred racing is still king.  In Sweden, while thoroughbred racing exists, standardbred racing is far more popular.

Using the Hambletonian as an example, and make no mistake, I love The Hambletonian, I’ve loved it since I was five years old. It is a great day and I will be there again this year.  But if there is a consensus within the industry that The Hambletonian needs to become a national brand and become a near week-long event, The Hambletonian Society and The Meadowlands need industry support to do just that. 

On the racing side, The Hambletonian is in a very difficult spot in that it is up against Saratoga on Whitney Day, which is the second biggest day of the Saratoga meet.  This really hurts on an export level, because Hambletonian Day at The Meadowlands has crossover appeal to thoroughbred players.  Furthermore, The Hambletonian tends to be contested right at the apex of the Saratoga program, which is also shown on a national broadcast.

On the event side, the industry needs to support The Hambletonian financially in turning it from a great day into four or five great days.  Again, I rely on the experts in brand marketing to determine just what that entails, but I do know that there needs to be an industry consensus in what events like The Hambletonian and The Breeders Crown should be, because nobody in thoroughbred racing is debating what the Kentucky Derby should be.