North America Cup XXX; And Some Branding



Penn National is just a track – your average every day Thoroughbred track – with four claimers or low level state breds. It might be more known for controversial owners or high takeout than it is for anything else.  Really if you ask any player, serious or casual, it’s just kind of “there”.

Last weekend, however, Dan Silver (a recent hire from the New York Racing Association) and the management team created their very first “big event” for the venue; The Penn Mile. As told via a press release, the event was very well received:

“Total all-sources wagering on the entire ten-race card at Penn National was $3,658,996, shattering the previous all-sources handle record for a single card of $2,173,921, which was set on December 26, 1998. The Penn Mile was the final leg of an All Stakes Early Pick 4 that handled $199,514 all-sources, eclipsing the previous record Pick 4 by more than $100,000.”

“On every possible level, tonight was a huge success,” said Dan Silver, director of racing operations at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course. “The racing department here – including racing secretary Dave Bailey, stakes coordinator Craig Lytel, and assistant racing secretary Jenny Bowman – put together the best card in the history of Penn National Race Course, and it was great to see people on track and around the country respond so enthusiastically. We’re thankful for the strong support demonstrated for our races by the horsemen and it was exciting to see so many tremendous stakes performances tonight, highlighted by Rydilluc’s thrilling win in the first ever Penn Mile. The on-track atmosphere was electric, and we are thrilled that so many fans came to the track to enjoy a terrific night of racing!”

This evening is part of an overall new strategy at Penn to concentrate on big events; to brand the track as something more than a $4000 claimer venue – to brand it as a place to look for on the simulcast dial.
Event branding is nothing new, but in racing, it really is a new strategy. For years, with a monopoly, getting people out to the track was about as easy as printing a program. Where else are they going to gamble? 

Over the past twenty years this has not been the case. Now racetracks have to fight and claw for on-track attendance, and produce both good racing and a good betting proposition, along with the on-track activities needed to ensure a good turnout. 

When I was a kid I saw my very first North America Cup, which happened to be the very first North America Cup. Legal Notice with Dr. John Hayes in the bike, roared home to take Canada’s richest pacing race; which was one third of the Canadian Triple Crown. Greenwood Raceway was was packed, raucous, and it was a thrilling evening. 

Since that time I have been to more and more North America Cups, but like so much in harness racing, the crowds are smaller, the electricity not there; it just felt a little blah.

Woodbine Entertainment then made a big change. They took the Cup away from cavernous Woodbine and moved it to quaint, welcoming Mohawk. For those of you who have been to both venues you know exactly what I mean when I say one venue felt big-city thoroughbred and one felt like homey-harness. 

This move immediately changed the feel, and the branding of the Cup. Gone was the event where you might run into someone on the second floor of a grandstand if you’re lucky, to one where you might get splashed thrice with beer from a paper cup on the tarmac, trying to dodge your fellow racegoers.  In a way, they got smaller to get larger. 

This year, as in years past, the branding of the event is in full force, but with slots leaving the Ontario landscape, the marketing has been ratcheted up a notch. 

"At this important time for racing we are investing more marketing effort into our signature events than ever before", noted WEG’s marketing man Paul Lawson.

“Included in this year’s plan are  more advertising & more on-site activity including a free 30th anniversary commemorative poster and autograph signing, an ad campaign featuring Randy Waples,  and bringing back the successful "first bet is on us" promo to teach new customers how to bet and build our customer database for the future.”

“For our core customers, they will get 4 times the points for all on-site wagers that day and benefit from a handicapping insert developed for the card. A guaranteed Early Pick 4 at $100K has also been promoted. As well, there is an aggressive North American campaign to promote WEG product with US ADW (advance deposit wagering) promos and the Daily Racing Form,” added Paul. 

I can attest to some of this – as being a hockey junky and watching the playoffs nightly – I have seen not one, but about six or seven commercials during the games for the North America Cup.

Digitally, Woodbine employs Greg Gangle on the harness side and he too has been hard at work on the event. 

"Coming into every year, our goal is always to surpass last year’s "Cup' numbers [in digital engagement] and so far we are doing just that. We are experiencing tremendous growth right now compared to a year ago and our customers and fans are appreciating the content that we've been supplying. We will continue to provide as much content as possible in a timely fashion in the form or news, videos, photos etc.", Greg said via email. 

Although Woodbine has always been good on the marketing side in terms of fan and attendance promotion, guaranteeing some regular pools is a more recent strategy. As a bettor, many believe Woodbine can do more, as other tracks have when it comes to juicing up the betting pools. An event like the Cup definitely breeds larger than average pools, so a good argument can be made that choice and familiarity can be added to the mix. 

Two things I might suggest from my travels in the betting landscape – in the interests of branding and creating more handle – are namely a 20 cent super high 5 and a 50 cent pick 5 in and around the North America Cup Final. Both bets need to be guaranteed or seeded (in this day and age that goes without saying I guess). 

Since the Cup card is shown throughout the US, a pick 5 seems to be a much needed addition. Pick 5’s have become a well-known bet in the US, probably because it provides one with a huge possible payoff without having to play a $2 pick 6 denomination against the big boys. I can imagine someone tuning into the Cup card via a TVG and wondering where their comfortable pick 5 is. They won’t find it. 

A super high 5 is somewhat similar to the pick 5. Most smaller players avoid it because it is a $1 denomination, but those same players love to take a shot when it is not that high of a denomination. In a contentious field with several good horses that’s being shown continent-wide, there is a chance the super high 5 for twenty cents could pay something. 

Cannibalization is fairly irrelevant; although maybe the current pick 4 guarantee’s might have to be adjusted. They’d add to the menu, and to the event, in my opinion.

Regardless, we’re seeing more and more interest in big events in Thoroughbred racing, but harness – other than perhaps the Hambletonian and Jug – seem to be lagging. Woodbine, through their strong horse racing brand north of the border, seems to believe races like the North America Cup are where their promotional future lies. I don’t think too many can argue with that.

This article originally appeared in Harness Racing Update.

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