The walls of Walt's Hitching Post are covered with memories that Bill Melton loves to share with family, friends, and guests. One can lose count of all the winner's circle photographs and other snapshots inside the Northern Kentucky restaurant, known as much for horse racing lore as for its smoked ribs.Maybe it's a coincidence the landmark is located between River Downs and Turfway Park, where many Melton horses have run and won. Melton, now 72 and a Thoroughbred owner for about 30 years, wouldn't have it any other way."It's an all-time high -- the greatest sport on earth," Melton said. "It's really hard to explain the feeling you get when one of your horses wins. And the thrill is the same whether it's a stakes horse or a claiming horse."Melton has owned some nice stock. David L.'s Rib, whom he bred, won 30 of 132 starts for earnings of $595,454. Billy Sue's Rib, an Illinois champion and nine-time stakes winner, banked $289,635. There have been plenty of modest runners, too."I think the little horse is the backbone of the industry," Melton said. "People connected with them bet more money, and spend a lot more time at the racetrack."Melton's restaurant, which he has owned for 40 years, has served as an entrée into the racing business for his customers. One of them, Ron Bates, became a friend and now has 25 to 30 of his own horses in Ohio, Melton said."I've taken customers into the business, and there's no telling how many people they've brought into partnerships," Melton said. "Horse racing needs new customers. It's just like running a restaurant."Indeed. But guys like Melton are becoming harder to find.The Thoroughbred industry is attempting to cultivate new owners through TheGreatestGame.com, and the results of a comprehensive survey completed by The Matrix Group of Lexington in April identify Melton and others like him as the typical horse owner.Almost 60% of the 353 respondents have logged more than 16 years in the business, and more than 80% were involved in other businesses when they became owners. In addition, almost half were racing fans before they purchased their first horse.Comprehensive ResearchThe survey was a collaborative effort of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Keeneland, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, EquineLine.com, and The Blood Horse. The results will be used to redirect industry marketing efforts, said Reed Farley, senior vice president of industry development and technology for the NTRA.Organizations that helped facilitate the survey were the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Association, and The Jockey Club."We had about 5,250 names in the database, and got 353 respondents," said Farley, a horse owner who heads TheGreatestGame.com. "We're really happy with the level of participation. The survey has validated the excitement people get from the sport, and the challenges of our sport. We're proposing that we follow up on the research and conduct focus groups with owners."The telephone survey, conducted from Jan. 31-Feb. 27, was geographically inclusive even though a third of the respondents are from Kentucky. Other regions -- Florida, the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and West Coast -- were well-represented. The research results have a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5%, The Matrix Group said.Currently, 86.4% of the respondents classified their involvement as owners, 55.8% as breeders, and 17.8% as trainers. The percentages account for overlap, though new owners were less likely to also be breeders.More than 80% of the respondents are age 45 and older, 60% age 55 and older, and 32% age 65 and older. Almost 70% are male.TOBA president Dan Metzger said the demographics make sense. People in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s probably have more free time and available resources, and at that point in their lives are better candidates for Thoroughbred ownership than people in their 20s or 30s, who may be raising children.The research, therefore, begs the question: As the Thoroughbred industry goes after new fans, and in turn potential owners, is it looking in all the right places?Not surprisingly, 58% of a sampling of respondents cited high costs and minimal return on investment as clearly the most negative aspects of the game. They stay involved for other reasons, such as the satisfaction tied to winning races."It scares me when a guy is really harping on ROI (return on investment)," said Terry Finley, founder of New Jersey-based West Point Thoroughbreds. "What we try to sell is the unbelievably enjoyable experience of being a racehorse owner, and a ready-made team of professionals."Continued . . .
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