By Paul Deblinger
I'm one of those new fans who got into racing with the opening of that new track in Minnesota in 1985. That track and the other new tracks built since held a lot of promise for Thoroughbred racing. Despite having worked in the industry, I still view racing from an outsider's perspective, and, sad to say, I see a lot of disturbing things.
The biggest disconnect in racing is the failure of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the tracks to do anything for regular customers, or to identify new sources of customers. The NTRA has spent lots of money to attract new customers, but by and large its efforts have failed. New people are not going to the track, and if they are, they're not going back.
I'm sure the NTRA and the tracks will say they have done the focus groups and polls and know what's out there, but I know from experiences that focus groups and polls largely tell you what you want to hear. The best way to see what's going on is MBWA: Management By Walking Around.
A couple years ago at Saratoga I stood in line for 20 minutes at an ATM machine only to find I needed a local ATM card. It's like they didn't want me to bet.
The problem extends to simulcasting and home wagering. A few weeks ago, I was watching TVG and races at Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park went off at the same time. Hello! They're owned by the same company. If you're a Churchill Downs stockholder, ask why the company seems to discourage bettors from wagering more. This wasn't an isolated incident. The next week races at Hoosier and Hollywood overlapped.
Speaking of TVG, who exactly is the network trying to appeal to? As a regular player, I find the inane chatter so annoying that the horse in front on my screen always seems to be named "Mute." Don't tell me who you pick in the race; you're going to be wrong 70% of the time. Give me good, solid information I can't get anywhere else. And fix your Web site so I don't get shut out so much.
Boy, am I a complainer. But when I have been promised so much, and delivered so little, I think I have the right.
It's impossible to find new customers one at a time, so market to groups and seek partners. I attended the Grand National Steeplechase in Maryland this year and saw hundreds of happy people of all ages enjoying themselves for several hours to watch just two races with NO wagering, all to benefit Cystic Fibrosis. Tracks should form alliances with charities. Let the charities sell the tickets, arrange the catering, advertise the event, and bring hundreds of people to infield tents to have a good time. Maybe they'll come back.
The NTRA should focus its efforts on coordinating racing nationwide. Make the product better and more accessible. The NTRA needs to be truly the national commissioner's office: authoritatively tell the tracks when to race, which means dates, times, and stakes schedules. If necessary, hire the guy from Australia who makes up the racing schedule and sees to it that races go off every five minutes. I just paid Comcast Cable an extra $14.95 a month so I could get TVG, but there's nothing on when I can play the races. It seems logical that people with jobs can bet races, so put on the good races when they're home from work (hint: at night).
Be really bold: don't move the Triple Crown races up one hour, move them back a day and half. Run the Triple Crown races on Sunday night during prime time. Members of The Jockey Club, officers of Churchill, New York Racing Association, and the Maryland Jockey Club, I'm sorry, sit down, put your feet up, the heart palpitations are not permanent. You have a good product. For heaven's sake, put the show on when people will see it. Just think, in 150 years people will be talking about the tradition of the first Sunday night in May.
Put some horseplayers on the NTRA board. Get out of Lexington and move to Laurel or Pimlico, or if the NTRA wants a really chilling look at the apocalyptic future, stick the offices in the old Bowie grandstand with its blown out windows and Blade Runner feel.
I still feel that the NTRA is racing's best hope, but it needs outside help, a new aggressive attitude, and new walking shoes. Like the song in The Producers, "We Can Do It!" PAUL DEBLINGER has been a racing writer, chartcaller, and marketer and is now Director of Advertising for Nutramax Laboratories and horse owner in Country Life Farms' racing partnerships.