Jeff Gural

I caught a presentation today about what Tioga and Vernon are doing to try and bring back some live fans to racing. It was solid, and it was apparent to everyone in the room that they were working their butts off. To be quite honest with you I have never seen more spending - big dollars, not small dollars - put into the sport by a track with 200k handles.

On the harness edge tonight I see a bit of news regarding Vernon/Tioga CEO Jeff Gural's thoughts on marketing in a letter to the Magazine. It is such a shame that they are trying to market a game with a byline of "you can beat a race but can't beat the races" and as you all know from the blog we believe it is its death-knell - the people who don't care if they win are all playing slots. But it has not stopped them. They are trying very, very hard there.

There has been a lot written in your magazine as well as others about how to market the harness racing product. While many efforts have been started in the past and obviously the effort by the USTA to form a marketing committee is a positive sign but the reality is that it is very difficult to market your product if you do not have a good product to market.

Here at Tioga we are doing everything I can think of to market harness racing including some new gimmicks this year as we have the Budweiser Clydesdales coming to both tracks which I think will be a big draw when we race. All of our TV and print ads feature harness racing.

We have given away lawn chairs, fishing poles, hats and I was just able to convince a local car dealer to donate a brand new Toyota, Camry to be given away to one lucky racing customer at the end of the meet. Customers will be able to buy a miniature horse for $1 which will be given to a charity each day and we will drive the car down the stretch after the eighth race each night with the window open and people will have a chance to throw the horse into the window of a car and from the miniature horses that land in the car we will select one each racing day and at the end of the meet we will put all of the winning names in a hat and draw one out to determine who wins the Camry.

I saw this promotion recently at a minor league hockey game where people tried to throw pucks into a car and it was a huge success. All of these promotions are fine and they work to a certain extent but the reality is what really works is having races with horses that the public has heard of.

Our biggest crowds of the year are still the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness and Belmont and the reality is that horse racing does everything it can to make sure that our best horses make as few appearances as possible on the racetrack.

There is a lot of hoopla and deservedly so for Somebeachsomewhere and Deweycheatumnhowe but the reality is these two great horses will probably race ten more times and then be retired to stud. I am attempting to convince my fellow racetrack owners that we should put a provision in the condition of all of our stakes races beginning in 2012 that only horses who are sired by a stallion five years old and older be eligible to compete.

I know the breeders will think this will hurt their business but the reality is in the long run it will help their business. We cannot continue to close our eyes to the fact that our fan base is shrinking and I hate to think where we will be in 10 or 20 years at the rate we are going.

I remember when I first became interested in harness racing back in the 1960's you could count on seeing the best horses in the world every Saturday night at Yonkers or Roosevelt and that is what I looked forward to. In Europe where the sport is far more popular then in America they have essentially the same dynamic with their best horses typically racing to eight or nine years of age.

Maybe we could look into the European model of racing and breeding at the same time but clearly no marketing effort is going to succeed unless we have the product to market. It is no different then it is for golf without Tiger Woods. We all know that interest in golf now that Tiger is on the sidelines has dropped dramatically and I am sure their TV ratings will be down substantially.

I know it will be difficult but I am hopeful of convincing my fellow racetrack owners that we have to accept the fact that we are in business to please our customers and not to please the handful of people who happen to be lucky enough to own great horses. I do not think it is the worst thing in the world if you are lucky enough to own a great horse to be forced to watch him race another year in front of big crowds and possibly if you own a trotter go to Europe to compete as well.

A side benefit of this proposal is that it may help us breed sounder horses as it would seem potential sires would be judged by their performance as an aged horse as opposed to how fast they were at two.

In any case, I wish the USTA Marketing Committee well but it is time to bite the bullet and focus on the quality of our product and giving people the kind of races that will make them fans for life as I and most of your readers are. What scares me the most is the fact that at Tioga and Vernon since racing began in May wagering on our VGM's is up almost 10 per cent while wagering on our live product is down about 15 per cent. We must take real action by addressing the problem of our best horses retiring at three.

Jeff Gural

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