09/27/2016 10:24AM

Zoccali: Once in a lifetime chance to market a superstar

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Derick Giwner
Wiggle It Jiggleit is Harness Racing's marketable superstar.

Harness racing has a star and they don’t know what to do about it.

It’s been a common theme for years.  Consistently, the harness racing industry has marketed within its own borders, using excuses, typically costs, when discussing limitations in being able to expose its product to those outside of its own sport.

Nobody is willing to contribute money to put the sport on national television.  To make matters worse, some racetracks and horsemen’s groups think investing big money into a “driver’s challenge” for drivers who would have been at the track anyway, is a better way to promote the sport.  I’m still waiting for someone to show me handle or attendance increased dramatically at that type of event.  Imagine if every harness racing facility and horsemen’s group in the country put up $100,000 each year to get its major races televised.  Nope, let’s give drivers $100,000, after all they are all starving financially. 

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I watched, while shaking my head, as those representing the industry fought over funding to televise major races on a national scale, with the end result being only one race, the Hambletonian, landing a national broadcast.  This took place in the months following the 2015 Little Brown Jug, one of the greatest horse races anyone has ever seen, featuring its brightest star, Wiggle It Jiggleit.  Better yet, the race was on national television.  But that wasn’t good enough to bring the race back on television?  Simply put, you cannot make this stuff up. 

Here is why that decision was a colossal failure.  That race created crossover appeal for Wiggle It Jiggleit.  People in the thoroughbred industry started to talk to one another about him.  “Hey, have you seen this pacer, Wiggle It Jiggleit?” became a common question in the thoroughbred world.

If you do a search for Wiggle It Jiggleit on Twitter, you will find major names, including Larry Collmus, the voice of the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup, directly referencing the pacing superstar.  Guys like Jerry Bossert, a thoroughbred writer for over a decade and Tom Lamarra who writes for Bloodhorse, tweeting about each of WIJI’s starts.  The horse is selling himself.  For the first time in a generation, thoroughbred racing is jealous of harness racing.  When I was at Saratoga this past racing season for a work event, major (and I mean major) players in the thoroughbred racing game went to Saratoga Raceway to watch Wiggle It Jiggleit race and they walked away in amazement.  They are citing this horse as an example of how great it is to have a horse racing all over the continent, week after week, for everyone to see.  They are asking, “imagine how great it would be to have a thoroughbred that does this.  We always say, we can’t give people a reason to go to a racetrack on a Monday night, but if we had a horse like this, we could.”  By the way, California Chrome (you may have heard of him), was racing close to the same time in California that night, but thoroughbred fans still went to watch Wiggle It Jiggleit live.  A walking marketing tool has been put on a platter for harness racing to deliver to the world and they still can’t figure out how to do it.

Would it be so outrageous for harness racing to find a major news network in a major city to work out a marketing deal in exchange for “Wiggle Watch,” in which for 30 seconds in the news program, where and when WIJI is racing is next and perhaps how he did in his last start are presented?

That’s something I came up with while doing prep work for this column and I am no marketing guru.  Are we to believe there is nobody in the harness racing industry that can step up and deliver an idea to put this horse in the national limelight?  By the way, if there isn’t, then pay someone outside the business to do it.  After all, Rambling Willie was on the Merv Griffin show.  Do we really have to continuously hear how “that was a different time” and “shows wouldn’t be interested in that now”?  Here’s an idea, pick up a phone and find out!  I have news for you, people in this country are dying for some kind of positive news story.  They have consistently shown that they treat racehorses like national pets.  WIJI would fill their cup to the brim.

If you added up the amount of money spent on “marketing campaigns” at harness tracks this year that proved to be wasteful spending, you can more than pay for some sort of television program or television segment on a show that a couple million people watch.

This horse has it all.  Not only is he a champion, but he has a great name that can catch on in the mainstream.  He is an athlete without drama and without controversy.  Wiggle It Jiggleit is the kind of superstar that every major sport in this country craves.  He’s Derek Jeter.  He doesn’t always win, but he always shows up.  Yet somehow, here we are just seeing articles on harness racing websites and tweets within the industry (myself included) promoting this horse.  Not one column, not one commercial, not one advertisement on a national mainstream scale.

I can’t make this any clearer.  For years, people in the harness racing industry have been looking for something to sell to the mainstream, something that has crossover appeal to thoroughbred racing.  Here he is folks, standing right in front of you, zipping around oval after oval week-in and week-out.  Wiggle It Jiggleit is a walking marketing tool.  I’m sure if he could talk, he would be putting the sport on his back and selling the sport himself.  Who knows? Maybe he can, because I’m sure nobody has bothered to ask him.