At long last maybe, just maybe horse racing has positioned itself to take a long overdue ride, thanks to the people and the personalities in and around California Chrome and the industry itself. Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, none of the 12 horses who have taken the first two legs has gone on to make history in the Belmont Stakes. On June 7, California Chrome will be the next to attempt to join horse racing’s elite fraternity, can 13 be the lucky number not just for colorful co-owners Art Sherman and Steve Coburn, but for the industry as well?
We shall see.
One thing that is for sure is that unlike in many years past, most of the industry stakeholders and their partners seem to be ready to seize this moment. In the past three years the NTRA and The Jockey Club, through their vibrant platform America’s Best Racing, have unceasingly tried to find stories and personalities and numbers that will appeal to a casual fan. From film to long-form stories to embracing celebrities, ABR has churned out story after story, info graph after info graph, to try and explain and embrace the beauty of the sport, from the glory of the Kentucky Derby to the majesty of Saratoga through the mega-size and value of the Breeder’s Cup. While doing all this promo they have noticed a trend that may seem to turn the tide, and the perception of horse racing as an aging, old man sport in dark tracks on the fringes of society; Nearly 50% of America’s Best Racing web traffic is female; 40% under age 34 and 60% under age 55. That shows progress at a time when a horse has come along to bolster this casual numbers with the biggest and longest run of his life on June 7 at Belmont Park.
Now ABR has not done the work alone. NBC has stepped up to create a more consistent, in-depth and robust viewing and engagement package for horse racing year round across all its platforms, so that fans have one destination to go for the biggest races. The Breeder’s Cup has invested in explaining and making their offering more consistent to fans, with a series that links many of the lead-in races to the year-end event better than ever before. Many of the elite tracks around the country have expanded their use of the digital space, while also making the tracks more fan and family friendly than ever before. All can capitalize on the next three weeks as a springboard to future success, much like the NHL has leveraged the success of their outdoor games and the Olympics to bigger numbers this spring, showcasing the personalities of their sport (another good job by NBC in leveraging that property as well by the way).
Are there brands that will now emerge from the sidelines and try and jump on board for the long term as well as the short? In years past Visa saw an opportunity to sponsor The Triple Crown, but the fractious nature of horse racing at the time, along with races on multiple networks, didn’t lead to a strong or consistent ROI. When Big Brown made its run for the Crown, UPS came forward to take advantage of that short window with a unique partnership. The difference now is that there is a more consistent package and platform for brands to activate against. You can see the TV strategy, the brand strategy and the engagement possibilities more clearly than ever before. It may not be one stop shopping for someone looking to engage, but it is certainly easier and more robust than ever before.
This past weekend we continued to see some newer brands testing the waters. Some spirit brands, appealing even to women, showed up during the Preakness broadcast and will probably do the same now that there is great excitement for the Belmont.
Of course all the issues of horse racing aren’t solved with one glowing potential champion. The marketplace for the casual fan is more crowded than ever, with a robust NHL and NBA Playoffs coming to a head, not to mention the World Cup on the horizon and the added competition from virtually every sport imaginable in the next few weeks, from the NCAA Lacrosse Championships to the Indy 500, and the constant beat of baseball. The issues of abuse of horses, the viability of tracks and the increased attention on a daily basis for the sport remain problems that are being dealt with, but horse racing overall is stronger in leadership and vision than it was even a year ago, and that can help lift the ship when the tide comes in, in the form of more casual viewers for a Triple Crown Saturday. There is better promotion of personalities like jockeys, trainers and horses than ever before and a unified platform like ABR can now be a driver and a resource for many.
Will 13 be a lucky number for the business of horse racing in a few weeks, a new chance to push the sport further? While sometimes it’s better to be more lucky than good, the good business sense now in place in the sport should be a plus in taking advantage of the skilled, and lucky emergence of America’s latest potential hero, California Chrome. The race for growth is on.