Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for ESPN.com, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, October 18, 2010


Escape from the Present


(CHICAGO, IL – October 18, 2010) The unanimous love that the horse racing community has showered on Disney’s Secretariat is two-faced. Everyone within the community seems to believe he will benefit if the movie is popular. But, prior to the premiere a few weeks ago, many of the same people thought little about drawing the movie’s audiences into racetracks.

Secretariat has nothing to do with the sport’s core constituency. Yet, the industry from top to bottom – from racecourse operators to readers who write comments to HorseRaceInsider.com – believe everything revolves around how much the bettors wager. Despite occasional exceptions, the majority of horse racing has concentrated on the now, not the future.

Understandably, as providers of the revenue that covers the costs and produces the (rare) profits, horseplayers are considered the most valuable customers. Why, then, the enthusiasm for a movie that’s been made for somebody else? The people that are going to see Secretariat are families, horse-lovers, history buffs and romantics – hardly the profile of those with a Jones for a parlay. If they went to the track, they wouldn’t bet. “Oh, Happy Day?”

This assessment appears brutally harsh, of course. But there’s plenty of evidence around that supports the conclusion that horse racing cares more about increasing the revenue produced by its base than on building for the future. It’s been years since the sport advertised. When the NTRA chose Lori Petty to be the face of the game, it was sabotaged. When the Breeders’ Cup threw a party at which geezers couldn’t hear above the din of Maroon 5, traditionalists cringed…well, in any case, they exited the Palladium.

Secretariat enables an escape from the present. The movie shows no shots of the counterfeit Penny digging into her purse for a sawbuck to bet on her hero. The racetracks don’t appear to have odds boards. No whips are swung by the jockeys, no animals are injured, no villains lurk – unless you say that Nestor Serrano’s portrayal of Pancho Martin is menacing. Pancho himself wouldn’t.

No, the screenplay of Secretariat was written by Ozzie Nelson; the sport’s operating manual by Jean-Paul Sartre. One promotes squeaky-clean fiction; the other, existential behavior. Is Secretariat the horse racing its operatives want? Apparently. Is Secretariat the horse racing the public wants? Let’s hope so.

Horse racing will disappear if it’s not introduced in a favorable way to people unfamiliar with what the sport offers. In this regard, the best thing about Secretariat is that it’s an advertisement. Few horse racing people and businesses spend money on long term investments that don’t produce instant results. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon when someone else writes a book or makes a film that advances the industry. This sycophantic tendency, at the very least, proves that hope still exists for the game.

“If I owned a racetrack, I would weigh marketing communications according to the estimated lifetime value of the customer,” advised Don Brashears, the co-managing partner of a Chicago-based ad agency named Tom, Dick & Harry. “Because the frequent, high-value customers are likely easier and less costly to reach, you could allocate an equal or greater amount of the budget to attracting new customers,” he suggested.

Brand strategist Bob Killian, whose white papers on killianbranding.com are used by graduate schools of business as part of their marketing curricula, agreed with Brashears that it’s unwise to ignore prospects. Killian said, “The bulk of the branding effort and budgets should be directed at the bullseye targets. However, racetracks that ignore other audiences are at peril.” The life of a good brand, after all, continues on long after its customers have passed.

Generally, businesses use advertising to intrigue people to try their products. They turn to television, radio, print and Internet media to create an image, explain features and pitch benefits, develop curiosity, exaggerate and showcase brands in front of customers who are prone to buy products of similar description or purpose. A promotional strategy, on the other hand, is implemented when trying to extract greater response from the people who have already discovered your products or to reward faithful users. A reliance on promotions in lieu of advertising has affected the current size of horse racing’s customer base.

“Unless you go to the track or experiences the sport in some other way, how are you going to know that you’ll like it?” asked Steve Krawczyk, a consultant who believes that Secretariat is painting horse racing with positive imagery. “There’s a lot of human interest in the sport – the agony, the ecstasy, the expense – but you’ve got to expose people to that,” he said. “Getting the general population interested in horse racing increases your odds of getting people to come out to the track and increases your odds of making them bettors,” he added.

“Businesses that keep going to the same customers will slowly die,” Krawczyk warned, as if his conclusion should be obvious to everyone. Sooner or later, a competitor comes along and steals a few customers away. People die or they disappear, or they’re kidnapped by some other brand-owner. In the case of horse racing, let there be no mistake about who is needed most in the fold now. It’s not the guy betting daily who will be there no matter what, but the person who has yet to discover what horse racing offers him.

The most significant effect that the movie Secretariat can have would be to rally the horse racing community to believe in the reasons that brought them to the sport in the first place. Once the community has its optimism back, it can begin the process of selling the sport to people who haven’t tried it. For the time being, no person that claims Secretariat is good for the sport can ever again say that people who don’t bet aren’t worth going after.

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Written by Vic Zast

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