That’s the message Churchill Downs president Bob Evans sent to all of racing in a speech he made before the Kentucky Farm Managers organization earlier this week.
Is Evans right?
Without equivocation, we think the answers are yes, no, and this view doesn’t go far enough.
Racing’s critics think there’s no excitement in watching a bunch of brown horses running in circles around an oval. On it’s face, they’re not wrong.
But scratch just below the surface, as loyal fans do, and nothing is farther from the truth.
And nowhere does that manifest itself worse than when the sport is presented on television.
Racing broadcasts have tried without apparent success to present racing as a game, a puzzle to be figured out.
In the past, racing has partnered with one past performances disseminator in an attempt to sell the racing product. If anything, it winds up being a better commercial for the past performance company than it is for the game.
By using several data sources to reach a consensus, viewers could begin to learn about racing strategy. From pace analysis flows a conceptualized view of how a race could be run, and how different tactics might influence the final result.
The education process for potential fans shouldn’t be dumbed down. Whoever gets it, gets it. Whoever doesn’t, has no inclination to learn and won’t. Contrary to the stereotype when racing was the only gambling game in town, today’s most successful handicappers are highly educated and upwardly mobile.
Forget mass marketing to attract potential fans. Racing needs fans and gamblers with the mental acuity and wherewithal to get and stay engaged. What it needs is old school snob appeal.
Racing isn’t a game that will ever attract a wide audience. The trick then becomes to attract the right audience, not the attention-deficit crowd that follows Paris Hilton’s every move. Racing doesn’t want or need fans that are highly likely to move on when presented with the next big thing.
Evans thinks there’s too much racing but that’s not a new theory. Last year in the U.S. 7,375 racing dates offered almost 52,000 races with handle of $280,000 per race. Everywhere else, 117,000 races attracted handle of $780,000 per. Actually, those 51,688 races are 35 percent fewer than in 1990, another of the game’s many enigmas.
Fewer racing dates and presumably clever condition-book writing helped produce larger fields; nearly eight in the U.S as opposed to 10 at foreign venues. Evans correctly argues that 10 starters attracting $780,000 in handle is an economic model that would keep tracks flourishing.
Evans also thinks we need to produce more horses for fewer races since the number of starts per horse is down 20 percent since 1990. What he failed to mention to the Kentucky Farm Managers is that the industry needs to breed strength and stamina back into the thoroughbred, too.
Too much racing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Too much racing can provide the kind of diversity that allows small market, second tier tracks to survive. Diversity is important for gamblers, too, especially horseplayers.
Many horseplayers actually prefer pedestrian mid-week fare to the tough big races on weekends. They reason the worse the quality, the greater the number of throw-outs. I’ll bet the majority of racetrack executives would be shocked to learn that’s the way many of their customers think.
Evans pointed to a Churchill Downs promotion, a contest to pick the Derby winner, the choices logged via text messaging. Churchill received over 90,000 messages after running only four contest promos. The fair assumption is that CDI reached a younger, tech savvy audience, a good thing.
What is needed is more of this kind of outside the box thinking.
Racing engages the vast majority of its audience through wagering via the participatory process of handicapping. What could be better than the latest technology servicing this data driven game to attract a younger audience? But, again, racing talks but doesn’t actually embrace technology.
Tracks still don’t get together to make a concerted effort to invest in software that would transmit betting information instantaneously. How can players have confidence in the overall integrity of the betting pools when odds continue to change as the horses reach the three-eighths pole?
There’s nothing wrong with racing's product, only with the way it’s presented to current and future customers. Nascar isn’t popular because there are only 76 major races as opposed to racing’s thousands; it’s popular because it does a better job.
For instance, has anyone thought of pooling racing’s resources to buy those same full-page advertising supplements like the car folks do in all the local papers?
Have racetracks made a real effort to service existing customers by providing the latest betting information for informed decision making, as if tracks don’t have a vested interest in the fiscal health of its customers?
Have the tracks done a good enough job lobbying their state houses for permission to do what other businesses do when income stagnates, such as lowering the cost of the product?
Supply-side economics dictates there is a price at which supply and demand meet to optimize profits. Shouldn’t racetracks, like other businesses, be allowed to test its pricing structure to find that level, unencumbered by inflexible and arcane legislation?
“Innovation comes out of competition,” Evans said, referring to the likely failure of a handful of modern racetracks to survive.
All Evans and other track executives and state governments need do is look within the borders of the Commonwealth of Kentucky to see what one new track executive, Ron Geary of Ellis Park, did; instituting a new Pick Four wager with a four percent takeout.
On a small scale, this innovation already is beginning to show dividends. Last year, the bet averaged a mere $18,000 daily. On Wednesday, $36,000 was bet into the Ellis Pick Four.
In the long term, price will prove more important than product. As for the product, it’s fine just the way it is.