Jan 8 2015

An Educated Fan Is A Dedicated Fan

Neal Pondering Future

I started this website as a challenge to myself, to give something back to a sport that I have loved for my entire adult life. And, to satisfy an internal drive I have to teach people about a sport that I feel is often misunderstood.

As I look into the future of 2015, the future of The Sport of Kings is very much in doubt. For those of you who only know Saratoga, Keeneland, or Del Mar … you might not fully realize that fact . But, every serious study within the equine industry shows steady decline in attendance, handle, and fans. As a whole, the racing industry in North America is struggling.

Why? That is a complex question, and I don’t proclaim to have all of the answers. But, as a fan of more than 35 years, I feel compelled to do my part to figure it out. And, if possible, help to remedy the situation.

In a study reported by Jockey Club a couple of years ago, I found the following line of Yes/No questioning to consumers very revealing. These questions pertained to consumer attitudes about Thoroughbred Horse Racing vs. other major sports.

How easy is it to understand how the sport works?

Other Sports – 76%

Horse Racing – 28%

Are there many ways to learn about the sport?

Other Sports – 80%

Horse Racing – 22%

Is there easy access to the information you need to follow the sport?

Other Sports – 71%

Horse Racing – 2%

If you summarize this information, relative to other sports, Horse Racing is …

  1. More difficult to understand than other sports.
  2. Has less ways for fans to learn about it.
  3. And it’s nearly impossible for a fan to find the information required to follow it.

So, what can one person do? Well, in starting this website, I’m trying to show that he/she can do a lot. My focus for the first 100 Blog articles was very much on education. And, while I will continue with that focus in the future, I plan to expand on my other offerings with more stories, travels, and meetings with interesting people involved in horse racing on a daily basis. Why?

I believe that education should be more than just the glossary of terms in a racing program or an odds chart with payoff amounts.  Education should help fans to understand “why” trainers, jockeys, and horses do what they do.  Education should explain the opportunities and adventures that become available to a fan after it all starts to make sense.  Education should transport fans to majestic places and reveal the sights, sounds, and emotions that await them.

I’m constantly bewildered at how little investment is made by major racetracks to educate potential new fans.  Well, if they think education is expensive, how much is ignorance costing them?

Other sports understand the importance of fan education.  That is why they invest so much money in pregame and post-game shows where experts discuss game strategy, players and coaches are interviewed, and video replays are marked up to help fans understand what took place on the field.  How effective has this strategy been? Do a random sampling of your co-workers and family members and ask how many of them are involved in player fantasy leagues, weekly football pools, poker tournaments, etc.  Then ask how many of them were doing the same thing ten or twenty years ago.

A quick anecdote here … for many years when I was an avid NFL fan, I had to BEG my sister-in-law to put the Thanksgiving Day NFL games on the television.  Here’s what I got for my plea: a 13-inch TV in the kitchen with the sound muted!  Today, the games are played on her big screen television in the living room, with full surround sound.  And this past Thanksgiving, I heard her and another sister-in-law comparing notes about their various fantasy football leagues, survivor contests, and weekly pools.  I asked them if the weekly pools were picking winners “straight up” or using the pointspread.  They replied in unison, “the pointspread of course!”  Of course … thinking to myself that ten years ago neither of them even knew what a pointspread was.

The Bottom Line: An Educated Fan is a Dedicated Fan.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

22 comments on “An Educated Fan Is A Dedicated Fan

  1. Is the competition to gain fans from other sports or gamblers from casino games and illegal gambling?

    Of course all sports have their purists, but isn’t the popularity of most driven by gambling? We still have the game that is easiest to lay a wager on (legally) in the notion.

    I live near the new “bush league” track in Austintown, OH. I love it, the folks that wander over to the racing side don’t seem to have much of a learning curve – what’s the difference between playing numbers or names is actually more attractive than pushing a button on a slot machine. I’m sure that several have become players because they bumped into live racing.

    Meanwhile, many in the racing community ignore or “put down” this racino that exists so that Penn National can run their casino. Embracing live racing at all levels can only help the game.

    I’ve encouraged many of these newbies who have been intrigued by live racing to get their butts to Keeneland. They will be amazed. We are the only sport spectacle that encourages crowd participation beyond dressing like fools and screaming.

    • Thank you for your comment. Keeneland is a good choice, as they have “Betologists” that are there for the purpose of helping newbies to understand the sport, read the program, racing form, etc. They also offer daily tournaments on some race days, that allow fans to test their mettle for just a few bucks ($10). My wife did this last year and had a blast seeing her name on the leaderboard. Beyond that, it’s a beautiful track to visit!

  2. Racetrack executives are by and large like any other rabid capitalists: their sole interest is enriching themselves and, collaterally, “creating value for shareholders.” How they do it is immaterial because with venture capital they can easily move on and go be selfish sociopaths in any other business. They have – in their limited imaginations – no incentive for embarking on a difficult cost center of “educating” new consumers. The cost of that, to them, is higher than declaring chapter 11 and, having shit all over racing, move on to shit on something else while satisfying their voracious greed and lust for control. CDI comes to mind.

    Rivegauche610 on
    • Too many “kings” in “The sport of kings” creates an atmosphere of greed. It inhibits an environment of growth, trust and success of the sport by creating an atmosphere of “newcomers not welcome”.

  3. Neal, This post is one of the most important you have ever filed. Your personal experience with family members who now understand the nuances of football because of fantasy leagues is something all of your readers are probably familiar. I know I am. Setting aside the issue of whether not groups of people pooling their money, analyzing performers statistics week after week, making selections and then based on accumulation of points earned by the correct selection of performers pay out the pool on a percentage is anything like horse racing in the parimutuel era, the reality is that pro football made a conscious effort to educate fans and methods to improve the overall understanding of the game. Turning to a days program of racing, personally I think the time between races is underutilized. Why not have the analyst show what they mean more than just talk? Why not in addition to having Maggie (Wolfendale) describing each horse in the paddock, Richie Migliore might be able to review each jockey’s riding style and how it may or may not fit a horse. Perhaps using TimeformUS, a mock positioning of the horses could be provided visually so fans don’t have to guess. Maybe there could be reminders of how successful or unsuccessful horses or trainers have been at the distance or the surface. Using race replays between races to show a past performance of each and every horse with analysis may help. Was a performance taxing? Easy? A dream trip? A win that became a loss because of jockey error? If handicappers want to stare ad nauseum at horses in the paddock, offer a split screen. Having analyst simply talking over a screen of the horses just isn’t engaging enough.

    At the track, there are ought to be free transmission to tablets or phones and free standing televisions prerecorded segments for each race that could be viewed YouTube style. Fans could get more or less information depending on the race. All sports are visual, but horse racing hasn’t embraced the need to bring a primarily agricultural sport into the modern era. Football, baseball,basketball and soccer almost give us too much information with closeups of sweaty athletes. In racing we get distant shots of gleaming animals, but can’t see the dapples all the time or the arteries and veins of these great athletes as they take the track or come off it.

    Short of offering free trips through the Kentucky Bluegrass, I am unsure how we renew the connection to the horses to make them heroes again. Perhaps the industry has to remodel the presentations and coverage so that in race strategy, trip, pace, etc. are all covered and really analyzed once a race ends. All of this takes money to enhance the productions offered on and off track. I am not hopeful as it will take a monumental shift in attitude and game plan in order to attract new fans while not losing existing ones. But you are wise to send out this message that problems exist and declines will continue unless there is a strong push to put racing back in the national consciousness.

    Keep up the crusade!

    • Terrific thoughts. I plan to forward a few of them to people in the marketing departments. You know this doesn’t have to be that complicated, just requires a new mindset. I am hopeful … just like the trainers and owners that send out their horses every day! Thanks for the comments.

  4. I so agree, I had to learn by watching loads of races. Listening to HRTV and TVG and guessing what the terms meant by what was happening on the track. I googled many things and learned from Facebook friends who had worked in racing in years past.

    Patricia Diers on
    • And now hopefully you’re passing that knowledge along to others! Pay it forward. Don’t forget to tell your friends about this website as a resource to learn more about the sport. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  5. Theory: It is better to have competitive races than better horses.
    I have seen small tracks (harness actually, which I acknowledge has its differences). But to explain, a B-track stages a series with two legs and a final for a class of horse that is abundant in their area. Let’s say they are $6,000 claimers and they normally go for a $2,000 purse. The track runs two weeks of these legs to determine who gets into the final which goes for $10,000.
    (winning the final is like winning 5 races in the one night!)
    The level of competitiveness and excitement in both backstretch and grandstand (and home bettors) is intense.

    Contrast to the same small track that carves out $10-$15,000 from its purse pool for a ‘Preferred’ or ‘Invitational’ class and tries to entice horses to come that normally race for $20,000 purses at the A-track. They only come if it looks easy, and that makes a program page with a short field (likely 6 horses) and morning line odds from 2-1 to 20-1.

    Point is, a track should know its level and make full field competitive races a top priority.

    And to the authors point, if bettors (casual or knowledgable) see the same race conditions and the same horses, they have less to learn. Confidence comes from knowledge.


  6. Don’t forget about the existing experienced horse racing fan being squeezed by greedy turf club owners. Parx has been charging .25 extra for Racing Forms since they opened. They refuse to upgrade the 8 inch TV ‘ s even though their casino is thriving. The latest decision to not carry the Gulfstream, Tampa Bay, and Santa Anita simulcasts has caused me to stop using their facility.

    greenperntkid on
  7. I agree with you whole heartedly.

    One thought to your point- NYRA hasmany give-away days riddled with cheap junk made in foreign countries.

    I would love to see Frankie Lovato’s Racing Terminology Booklet given to 30,000 fans at Saratoga next summer on a giveaway day.

    Steve Buonome on
  8. As a relatively new follower of the sport of horse racing I’d also like to add an observation regarding bullet #3. My point being that “critical” data / information available to the customer / handicapper is not readily available unless I am prepared to pay for it. Yes I can easily obtain basic track, race and entries data relatively easily but in-depth analytics are not accessible unless I’m prepared to pay for data. This automatically leaves a negative impression with the customer / handicapper such that only the sports insiders or financially privileged customers can gain access to meaningful and valuable information to help me chose a horse in any given race. This “have / have not” approach harms the sport in terms of visibility / transparency and imposes a feeling of helplessness trying to understand handicapping and placing an intelligent wager on a horse.

  9. As I watched the NFL Playoff games today, I thought about this post. Both networks had a former official on the program to review replays and decisions made by officials, fully explaining the rules during the process. This is a great example of what you’re talking about, an investment of time and money for the sole purpose of educating the fans.

  10. The biggest issue restricting fan education is that racing has no central governing, marketing or managing body (as in other sports). The Jockey Club is trying to do something with America’s Best Racing, but that’s a slow climb. If racing had a central organization, one of the major goals would be to launch a nationwide marketing/fan education program. Under the current structure, racetracks are out for themselves, and who can blame them? General managers are trying to show a profit today, tomorrow, right now just to keep the lights on. There’s little room for long-term projects like fan education that don’t figure to payoff until years down the road.

    • You make excellent points, and the need for a central governing body seems to get plenty of mention in the industry. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little movement in that direction. And, while your points are solid, it doesn’t explain why some racetracks do more than others. I visited “little” Emerald Downs in Seattle this summer … and similar to Keeneland, they had a fan education booth, staffed by people helping new fans learn about the sport. To put this in perspective, the sum total of the purses for the entire day at Emerald Downs was $60,000. Yet, tracks with ten times that purse money in a day provide virtually no fan education.

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