The ubiquitous TV screens in the bar were all showing the Kia Soul spot; you know, the one with the adorable hamsters driving neon-hued Souls with the windows and moon roofs open as they cruise down the street while bobbing their heads and necks to the beat of the hip-hop music blaring out of the sound system.
Gary stopped in mid-sentence and watched the entire commercial. “I love this spot. It’s terrific,” he said. Then he mentioned that he had been in meetings with stodgy, old corporate executives who hate it and don’t get it.
“That’s why it’s so good,” he said. “They’re not supposed to get it, because it’s not targeted to them. The age group it’s designed to sell Kias to get it, and they love it precisely for the reasons the establishment hates it. Then they buy the cars.”
When I heard that the Maryland Jockey Club recently announced that Kegasus, Lord of the Preakness, will be back as the marketing campaign for the 2012 second jewel in the Triple Crown, I was thinking not so much of the half-man, half-horse mascot. Hip-Hop Hamsters are what popped in to my head.
A lot of us who really love racing in all of its glory, and love the Preakness, hate Kegasus. We prefer that the race sell itself on the magnificence, heart and athleticism of the three-year-olds as they compete to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
We want our Preakness conversation to be about pedigrees, past performances, and the amazing back stories of how each horse in the field came to be here. We can’t wait to learn what makes the connections of each horse so fascinating.
We want people to come out to the track and appreciate what phenomenal professional athletes the jockeys, are and how much the owners, breeders, trainers and their crews have invested not only into each horse but into the game itself. We hope that the race will be an interesting betting affair, resulting in a huge on-track handle.
We need a reality check. Big time.
Kegasus, and the festival around him that is an homage to heavy drinking and rowdy partying, was created last year by the MJC brass because it knew the race had to have a much broader appeal to precisely that younger demographic which buys Kia Souls. There just aren’t enough racing purists around anymore.
After drawing crowds of 112,000 to 121,000 from 2004 to 2008, Preakness attendance dropped to 77,850 in 2009 when the track stopped allowing people to bring beer and other alcoholic beverages into the infield.
In 2010, the track’s advertising campaign was geared to a more youthful demo: “Get Your Preak On” was its mantra. Alcohol was back in the infield and it was a hit, drawing about 95,760 people, Last year, Kegasus helped bring 107,398 people to the track, a 12.1% bump from the previous yea’s bump.
The 2011 attendance was not only the largest in three years but also the sixth-highest in Preakness history. Yes, last year the handle was down 3.6% from the year before but that almost doesn’t matter in the bigger picture.
What matters is that people came to the track, especially the younger crowd that racing can’t seem to attract, not only at the Maryland tracks dealt a blow by competition from shopping-mall slots but all over the continent on a non “Big Race” or “Big Event” days. Moreover, they found out you can have a lot of fun, a really good time, at the races.
Granted that the fun was fueled in part by the Mug Club, where fans get a bottomless mug of suds for a single price all day and watch star acts like Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa, this year’s headliners. Kegasus likely is the most successful infield promotion in the track’s history.
And now, as the big guns at the MJC, the NTRA, and all of the other acronyms recognize, you can’t produce a new crop of racing fans unless you get them out to the track. At first, they may be there more for the beer and the debauchery.
The romance of racing is its glamour, the game as exciting as a sporting event can be, and the wagering a thrill-a-minute challenge. But every fan needs to be home-grown somewhere.
Think about it: That’s how we all started. We went to the track one day, watched a race, cashed a ticket and realized that racing is pretty damn great and we couldn’t wait to come back.
If the Kegasus crowd has a great time, they’ll come back, too. And when they learn a little bit more about the sport, the wagering, and what makes it truly the greatest game, they’ll become true racing fans.
So All Hail to Lord Kegasus and this year’s sidekick, Unicare, the half unicorn, half man. Can’t convince me that they don’t drive Kia Souls.