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Without Emotional Star Attachment, Horse Racing Needs to Stay Event Driven

There was an article on the Golf Channel website yesterday.

"In golf, like those other individual sports, a player must give you a reason to care. Most athletes, even some of the most fantastic ones, just don't have that extra push, they just don’t quite enthrall us like that. We admire them, applaud them, even root for them. But they never quite grab us emotionally. We don’t quite love them."

Jordan Spieth, the 21 year old golfer from Texas, has begun to do just that for the game of golf. Ratings for the Masters, US Open and British Open were all up.  Ratings for smaller tournaments he is partaking in, are also sky high. People want to watch him play, follow his young career and are emotionally attached to him. 

The above is not ground-breaking, or not much more than obvious, of course. It's like that in any individual sport and it's common sense.

I received an email recently from a student taking a horse racing program overseas. She asked about horse racing marketing the "stars"; how it could be done, and if it will move the needle, say like a Jordan Speith does. My answer to that was, it's difficult.

Horses that the general public have an emotional attachment with don't come around very often. Zenyatta, a poster-horse for such attachment, didn't hit her groove with the general public until start 14 or 15, in year three of her career. That's when ESPN gamebreaks started showing the streak. At start 19, her zenith in terms of popularity, she was on 60 Minutes, watched by 14 million. Then one start later, her career was over.

Zenyatta was lightning in a bottle. She was once in a generation, in terms of popularity. She moved the needle, but it was extremely difficult.

To capture emotion, horses need to i) have something about them that resonates, like a Jordan Spieth, ii) need to win at a high level iii) race frequently, and iv) race for a long time.

That's not modern Thoroughbred horse racing. It's round peg, square hole.

This is why, I believe, horse racing is always, and should always be, event driven.

The Triple Crown series works because of the Triple Crown series, not who races in it. If the Kentucky Derby field is filled with future 10 claimers, 150,000 will show up to watch, 15 million will watch on TV. The event trumps the stars.

The Breeders Cup is not dissimilar. Although it's the poorer cousin of the Triple Crown series, the event itself is the brand, not who races in the Juvenile Turf.

It's nice to hope and wish for horse racing's stars to capture the imagination of the public. In some cases it happens - Zenyatta did it, American Pharoah's next couple of races will be well-watched - but not nearly enough to move the needle for the sport.

Horse racing is a gambling game, or "gambletainment" as my friend Eric calls it. It, to me, is much easier to place hopes, marketing money, and a push to increase revenues from that end of the sport. It's head-scratching how the sport seems to sabotage this path-of-least-resistance avenue at almost every call. However, from the fan side, it's much easier to focus on marketing events, what they mean, and how they resonate, rather than a horse. Events can happen every year, good horses who possesses the characteristics to move a needle don't come around very often.

Have a nice Wednesday everyone.


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