Many of us have been to Jug Week and we love it. What might very well be the most storied and interesting race that harness racing displays, is a staple for Ohio, and the sport itself. 50,000 or more fans enter the turnstiles for the Jug and Jugette and its on-track presence is unparalleled in our game.
However, I was on twitter this week and asked if there was simulcasting for Monday. I didn’t know if there was, or even if a Monday card was taking place. On twitter I received no response. It’s like no one even knew what the Jug week schedule was.
Not long after that, I received a note from a long-time fan of the sport and he said “the Jug is the most underutilized harness racing property there is.”
I think I agree with that sentiment. The buzz is simply not there.
As this graph below shows, web searches for this jewel have been falling, year over year, to almost half of what it was in the middle of the 2000 decade. Outside the racetrack, the Jug’s pull is nothing like it is inside of it.
I am not sure you noticed, but in thoroughbred racing there is a push for almost every big event of late, whether it’s the Woodbine Mile, the Alabama, the Haskell or the Triple Crown races. You may have heard of the “Uno Mas Mario” campaign before the Triple Crown try for the Belmont, or maybe you walked by a courtesy tent at Saratoga, seen “America’s Best Racing’s” website or twitter feed, or noticed more and more mainstream media coverage of the sport.
I have. There’s a buzz, and it’s palpable.
Those things were not done by accident; they were planned. One organization has stepped up to the plate, to lead all the other alphabets, and to try and give the sport a much needed push.
Last year, the Jockey Club commissioned the folks at the consulting firm McKinsey and Company to give a state of the union report on racing. They wanted to know what could be done to stem the slide of thoroughbred racing on the national stage. Like harness racing, thoroughbred handles have been decimated, and the sport is nothing like it once was on television and in newspapers either.
McKinsey offered a number of suggestions, one of which involved trying to re-brand racing, hoping to interest both the general public, and casual fans again. This would take some organization and some funding, but the Jockey Club, along with their partners in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association began that journey last year.
“It’s a partnership approach with tracks, bloggers and the media, and others” said Stephen B. Panus, Vice-President, communications for NTRA/America’s Best Racing, when I contacted him this week.
Under the “America’s Best Racing” banner, it certainly is a multi-pronged approach, and through planning (and obvious trial and error and tweaking) they’ve been honing the approach this season.
One area they’ve changed is how the media has been accommodated by the sport.
“We used to get calls from media for, say, D. Wayne Lukas’s number so someone could write a story about him. Now we’re being more proactive. We push stories to the mainstream media, based on their specific interests. It’s like we’re farmers, because we are planting the seeds with writers for stories”, noted Panus.
This, in a way, was shown earlier this summer. Sportswriter Pat Forde was interviewing Michael Phelps at the Olympics and he wrote a story about what the swimmer may do after his career is over. At one point, the multiple gold medal winner mentioned his interest in owning a thoroughbred racehorse. Forde, who was an acquaintance of Panus’s, was contacted, as was Phelps. This new potential horse owner was directed to resources that would help him learn more about ownership, and become an owner.
Not long after, a post popped up on the America’s Best Racing website titled “An Open Letter To Michael Phelps” It invited him to become a part of the sport and let him know that others with his background have become owners (like Kobe Bryant, Drew Brees and Wes Welker).
This letter was then picked up by a couple mainstream media outlets, like The Bleacher Report, giving racing some much needed buzz.
“That story had legs for two weeks,” said Panus.
Another area tackled, revolves around fan interest. As we all know, thoroughbred racing (even more-so than harness racing) is extremely difficult to learn, and the knowledge of existing fans can dwarf that of the new fan. Like a kid in grade four who is reticent to put up his hand to ask a question, new fans can feel the same way.
“Museums learned that people new to art may be intimidated attending their exhibits because they wouldn’t know a Monet from a Renoir,” said Panus. “What they did was develop a system with headsets that explained the art and educated their customer base during tours. We are trying to do the same thing with our Fan Hub”
The Fan Hub is a partnership between America’s Best Racing and the racetracks, where a trackside tent that acts as a fan education center is constructed. New fans are invited to come over, ask questions and learn about the sport of horse racing. At times, jockeys and trainers are a part of it, as are handicappers. At Monmouth earlier this summer, a teller window was included and the track noticed a bump in wagering from these newbies.
“In the McKinsey Report they noted that 46% of current fans would not recommend the sport to a new fan and that was troubling. The Fan Hub tent does racing 101. We teach, engage and empower them to help become an active participant in the sport. We try and create fans from the experience”, said Panus.
Social media perhaps best illustrates the goal of the new organization. As most racing insiders and fans know, there is not much of a true (outwardly promoted) season in either sport - both harness and thoroughbred events are staggered, disparate, and tend to have no real flow to them. Sometimes it’s common to see two Grade I races going off at the same time.
What America’s Best Racing tries to do via the medium is bring some sort of structure to this rudderless ship. They promote races and racing based on a few tangible factors.
“At America’s Best Racing, we try to focus on the races that have year-end implications in order to help fans understand that horse racing, like all major sports, has a season to it. Therefore in the spring, we focus on featuring races with Triple Crown implications and in the summer and fall we highlight the races that lead to the Breeders' Cup. Furthermore, there's a festival atmosphere at each of the events that I try to share with fans so that they can get to know the whole social scene surrounding each individual race,” said Penelope Miller, the Social Media Manager for the NTRA and America’s Best Racing.
This focus appears to be working. Last season it was very uncommon to see a horse name trend on twitter after he or she won a promoted stakes race. This year it happens almost every weekend.
As with most of racing, without a set commissioner’s office like the NFL, it can be tricky to cross promote or lead in the promotion of an event, because tracks have to be aboard with a goal in mind. There needs to be a partnership. Fortunately, thus far, what may have been a stumbling block in past years has not been noticed.
“Tracks have been amazingly helpful, doing everything from providing the ABR team access to all areas and personalities of the tracks to sharing photos and videos with us that we can feature on the site and in our social media. Racetracks have recognized that our goal, which is to introduce the sport of horse racing to as many new fans as possible, is one that benefits everyone in the industry and have been incredibly accommodating. “ added Miller.
Recently Darryl Kaplan, editor of Trot Magazine and the Business Development head of Standardbred Canada, penned an editorial titled “It’s Not That Simple”. He wrote that we hear that nasty phrase all too often in racing when we ask for change and use it as an excuse to do nothing. It’s very true that a lot of change in racing is very difficult. Takeout changes, which are obviously needed, are tough in a fractious sport. Asking for exchange wagering (as California is currently showing) is like asking for a cure for an infectious disease with horsemen groups fighting racetracks. The list is long.
However, making a plan and leading in areas of the sport that “are that simple” to change is possible. What makes it possible is replacing the “it’s not my job phenomenon” that plagues horse racing. It is not Santa Anita’s job, or Keeneland’s, or anyone else’s to lead. In harness racing it is not the USTA’s job, or Standardbred Canada’s, or Jeff Gural’s either.
But now in thoroughbred racing it actually is someone’s job.
Will harness racing follow the Jockey Club’s lead? Can harness racing put together and fund such a venture? The answer, in my opinion, should be yes, especially with slots churning out millions each month. As America’s Best Racing is proving, it’s not that difficult to lead and move a sport forward.
This article recently appeared in Harness Racing Update, Bill Finley's free newsletter. You can sign up for Harness Racing Update at the link.