The odd time I take a bit of time to write a post. Last night I took a break and typed what I thought the Breeders Crown could look like. What we might do in a slot world. I hope you enjoy reading it, and I welcome any comments, good or bad.
It’s a nice warm day and the red-clay track at Lexington is gleaming. The fans are plentiful and they are buzzing. In the next Breeders Crown race we have an amazing assortment of athletes for the Open Trot. Three superstars are from Europe, a Hambletonian Champion and four $2 million dollar winners are from North America. The others are some of the hardest hitting trotters this sport has to offer. The purse came in at a staggering $2 million.
The car starts and simulcast players have a birds-eye view from the cockpit – a cable network is televising the event and TVG has installed several cameras as well as microphones around the track. The tote board goes through final changes. The late money is huge as this event is simulcast around the world. Money from all over is in the pools and bettors are receiving value by betting the lowest takeouts in racing history. Thoroughbred players have been honing their harness racing skills and are active – after all we have promoted the event to them all year with our marketing budget.
Tom Durkin bellows: "They are off and trotting………."
Let’s face it, the Breeders Crown for harness racing has not become the showcase we have envisioned. Early on, with ESPN coverage and races from Pompano, it looked like it may be a success. As fans we got pumped for these races and our wagering reflected it. It did all come down to the Breeders Crown. Nowadays, it seems barely a blip on the radar. I don’t blame anyone. Blame is not what this piece is about. It is about a plan where we wave our magic wand, settle horseman and track disputes with a wave, put a captain in charge of the ship with a quick flick, grab a marketing budget with another wave, and try to turn this sport on its head.
So let's roll.
First we need a venue. This venue has to be liked by both horseman and fans and it has to sell harness racing on television. It should be a mile track to ensure racings greatest day is decided by skill, not luck. The Delaware County Fair is special because we only see it once a year. Let’s find a track like that. Also, the track must be slot-fuelled, so we can wave our wand and up purses for our big event. It must be owned by people who want to grow this event and this event only.
This spring, Kentucky is looking at slots at racetracks. It is a huge vote, in a racing friendly state. If it passes, and it should, they have a good hook. Currently the venue hosts some good events of Grand Circuit action, with a limited meet. With slots accumulating all year and helping purses, there is little doubt with a small planned meet, the Red Mile can host monster purses and great racing – if it is done right and we keep all the special interests from sticking their fingers in the pie.
Let’s wave a wand (we are being proactive here and projecting!) and say that slots at Lexington can bring in $40M a year for purses (this is probably low). Also, we might ask breeders to kick a few more bucks in on each foal born. Hey, I’ve seen $400K broodmare prices lately. They seem to be doing well, while the sport dwindles.
This slot revenue can be used in a number of ways. Increase racedates in a sport with many. Increase sires stakes purses to help breeders (been done all over with no real lasting effects on growing the end product via handle), or building piles of new infrastructure or new tracks (also been done before several times).
We throw one huge “X” on those ideas. We break the horrible cycle of try-fail-repeat.
The Red Mile is our venue. Fuelled by both handle and slot money, we create the best short racing meet in harness racing history, ending with the greatest Breeders Crown we have ever seen.
We plan to run a 21 day meet with plenty of racing action. Tracks love this because their slot revenue is not going to a long meet with high expenses. On the meets last Saturday evening, we end with the Breeders Crown. Purses are seeded from the slot money (remember the track saved mega-bucks by not running a long meet, so it’s payback time) and this creates record purses for the Crown. Even the elims go for big bucks, and since there are smaller stakes surrounding the Crown, horse owners are attracted to the meet and can make back all their expenses and more – even if they are shipping from Australia or Europe and miss the Crown final. We in effect create buzz, attract the best horses, and set the table to make this a true event that everyone in the World will watch, want to compete at, and bet on. The signal is distributed everywhere, and we offer the lowest takeouts racing has ever seen. Everyone wins. The horse owners, the fans, the bettors and the tracks all win. Most of all….. The sport wins.
From day one bridges are built. The Red Mile Breeders Cup team roars into action. Budgets are drawn up, the State house is called. Cross promotion with the tourism board is initiated. State governments love cash from the slots going into tourism. It’s a win-win and a good way to get politicians on our side. We have a business plan to make it work, rather than what we always seem to do - open the doors and hope people show up.
The marketing budget is spent on several areas. One, making sure horse owners all over the world aware of the purse structure of events for the meet, perhaps hitching fees that may be paid out to ensure everyone can make a few bucks. Two, we start advertising the meet and event world wide. Thoroughbred players are told about it in their magazines. The tourism board pushes things from their end. All tracks know that this will be big, so there is a strategy for every track and simulcast centre to advertise. Web marketing ensues to tap new markets. Information on the event, past races, the whole she-bang is on one website and this website is advertised to players and fans. Handicapping tools for the event are created. Information is power. Also, tracks are persuaded to not card their big events near this event, just like the thoroughbreds do. We need everyone on the same marketing page.
As for on-track promotions, we let the juices flow and allow the power of our marketing group figure out how to get fans in the seats. Marketing is trial and error and we experiment and see what works. Rome was not built in a day and neither were 21st century businesses like Ebay.
Distribution of the Signal and Television
The signal for the meet is given to everyone who wants it. HPI, any track, any OTB, any ADW. Australia and Europe are brought aboard. The Kentucky Derby this year had distribution problems and handle was down. We don’t let this happen because of petty squabbles in a fractured industry. Maybe even betting giant Betfair is approached to run a market, and those punters get free handicapping tools, and free video. This would be a first. Regardless, the product is there for everyone and it is the most distributed and promoted race day that harness racing has ever seen.
Second, we pay people to televise it. We have slot money, so we can. Local cable networks, ESPN2, The Score in Canada, TVG, whomever. We get this thing on TV.
In the past 15 years with slot money we have seen a few things that are truisms. One, the horsemen fight for a slice. Two, the tracks fight with them. Three, the bettor gets the shaft.
Well not with the biggest day in harness racing. On this day, and for this meet, bettors are rewarded. The meet has the lowest takeouts racing has ever seen. This sparks buzz. Ask any thoroughbred player if they would play a harness program filled with superstars, in semi-big pools as it is today. More often than not the answer is no. Now tell them that they can play monster pools, with great horses, televised, with handicapping tools, and get the lowest rakes in the history of wagering, or get good rebates at their ADW’s. The answer I am sure will be different.
Our rakes are 15% across the board, except for pick 4’s (which we name something cool for promotion), which we charge at 5%. This might create a pick 4 pool of $150K. Players salivate over that size pool with a tiny rake. They would have to be nuts not to play it. Since we are selling to everyone, this gives the ADW’s a slice that they can rebate to help us promote to big players. We charge 5% for the signal. We don’t squabble. We are building a brand and building a sport.
The customer finally gets a slice.
If Meadowlands Pace night can achieve $7M handles, there is no reason that over time this event can not hope to double that.
With $40 million or more in slot revenue (almost solely used for this event, it’s mandated that way in the slot deal) we sure as heck can up purses. Each event is $1.25M minimum. Consolations are $200K. Eliminations are $200K.
We create a Breeders Crown Showdown. The purse is $2.5M. It’s an Open event for pacers.
We create a new event, the marathon for pacers. According to the editor of Harnessslink who emailed me back with some information on downunder races, he says that “a mile and a half race is perfect for our horses.” With hitching fees, an event of this proportion and a monster purse we could see a fabulous display of world horse racing talent in the World event. Plus we streamline rules on cross-continent shipping. We have the ear of government remember? Will there not be a television of a racing fan in Australia and New Zealand turned on for this event? Will North American fans be pulling for long distance champ Boulder Creek in carrying our flag?
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, European trotters are very good. They sometimes come to events in North America, but quarantine rules and one race and out events are costly and risky. Now with a huge purse and other races to try if they fail, they can make money and make the trip. We might get the Elitlopp field, plus a Glidemaster et al. How cool is that?
So there you have it. The greatest meet and the greatest day this sport has ever seen as an annual event. The money is there, the fans are there. It could be huge, and what many of us want the Breeders Crown to be. It might just put us on the map.
On the blog I have explained why I think like I do, which is different than most. Can all this be done? Can any of it? I doubt it. Without passion, a strong central organization and a will; it is a tough, tough sell. The red tape and politics would be huge. Heck it is a lot easier to just put on a few races and cash slot money. It’s less work.
In Colonialist times sailors would sail from Europe to the New World in search of the metaphorical shining house on the hill. When they reached the Caribbean waters, some would get stuck in the doldrums named the Horse Latitudes. There they would toss their horses overboard to lighten their load, to allow them to use what little wind they had to get to shore.
Harness racing is stuck in the same rut. We can make a choice like those sailors did. We can throw our horses overboard and give up, hoping to get back to port with a few slot dollars in our pockets. Or we can instead implement new ideas and a new way of doing things that allows us to race into port, proud that we are not giving up this great sport without a fight.
If we choose to fight for this sport, you never know - we might find ourselves reaching that shining house on the hill. If not, well at least we tried.
The photo above, is courtesy the Red Mile. It is a beautiful place, and if you are a harness fan who has not been there, put it on your list. For more information on the Red Mile, visit theredmile.com.