By Nan Mooney
I grew up going to the racetrack. It was what I knew. My grandmother went and so did my father. For years I dreamed of becoming a jockey until it became clear I'd wind up closer to 5 feet 11 inches than the much-prayed-for 5 feet 2 inches. I hung posters of Angel Cordero Jr. on my bedroom walls and rode barrel races at pony camp. If I was different from other kids, I didn't realize it. They had ballet lessons; Little League. I had the track.
But as I've grown older and started frequenting tracks outside my hometown of Seattle, I've come to realize I'm an anomaly here. I don't fit the desired-customer profile. Usually I'm a prime marketing target--the under 30, urban female--but racing seems to have bypassed me entirely. It's too busy pampering the customer who has been coming for 50 years, who will probably die with a betting slip in his hand. It's as if my crowd didn't exist.
Isn't there something wrong here? Shouldn't racing be actively fostering a new audience instead of catering to the old? The answer seems obvious: The industry may boast of cutting-edge innovations but, if truth be told, there's little happening. When it comes down to the wire, racing--the sport I fell in love with because it was all passion and taking chances--is terrified of change.
Abraham Lincoln said you can't please all of the people all of the time. If racing wants to prosper, it will have to chance upsetting that old clientele to draw a new, younger generation. Success means making us part of what's going on. It means speaking in our voice. I haven't seen the TVG broadcasts, but critics keep lambasting them as hip, funky, modern, as if these were obscenities to be avoided at all costs. Well, the modern world is hip and funky. Young people like it that way.
Occasionally we're tossed a bone, but lest we get too comfortable along the paddock fence, it's quickly snatched back again. The 1998 NTRA Lori Petty ads provided a long-awaited welcome mat, putting the track in the context of our lives. The Rip Torn spot scrambles backwards like the parents arriving home and kicking out the party. Fox is trying. Sometimes nobly (Pacific Classic), sometimes not (Bob Baffert as Austin Powers), but I commend the efforts. And I think the industry can do a hell of a lot more. So from one of the new generation to those stuck in the old, here are a few pieces of advice:
- Spend money where we spend our time. Ads run during racing broadcasts don't draw new fans. Those aired during "Friends" and "Ally McBeal" might. Hit the trendy magazines. This is where we get cues about what's hot and what's not. Racing is stylish. It's glamorous. Like it or not, racing could even become hip.
- Catch up on current trends in sports. A perfect example: women athletes. Racing is one of the few arenas in which women, from Julie Krone to Chilukki, can compete against men at the premier level. So let it be known that real women are found in Thoroughbred racing. For a public enamored of Venus Williams and Mia Hamm, this will prove fascinating.
- Take steps to banish that seedy image. The NTRA publishes a brochure called "The Little Black Book Pocket Guide to Wagering on the Ponies." It's fabulous--hip, funky, and modern. Quick tips on what you need to know before going to the window and just enough attitude to show betting isn't only for the Rip Torns. So why did I have to ferret through a pile of NTRA literature at Saratoga before finding it? If this showed up in my mailbox, plus a free pass to the local track and two-for-one at the bar, I'd grab a few friends and head for the races.
Racing is an adventure. It's the slam-bam, let-it-all-loose feel of a day at the track. That's what I love about it. And there's a flood of young people out there searching for the same thing. We won't wait around forever. Of course the old guard will bristle. But will they stop coming? Stop betting? I doubt it. Change is never safe. But it's time for the racing industry to do what jockeys, trainers, owners, and fans do every day.
It's time for them to take a risk.