Thoroughbred Racing Associations president Scott Wells has seen first-hand how race fans, and potential new fans, connect with jockeys.
Wells, president of Lone Star Park and Remington Park, said a series of commercials featuring the Remington jockey colony have proven popular in Oklahoma City. The spots typically have run at the end of Remington Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse racing seasons, serving to promote the track's casino operation while keeping an emphasis on racing.
"We view ourselves as a racetrack that has a casino as opposed to the other way around," Wells said.
Wells outlined the background of the commercial spots from the audience during a Jockeys' Guild Assembly session Jan. 27 in Hollywood, Fla., addressing ways for jockeys to promote the sport. The commercial spots proved popular on local television and created a social media buzz, where Wells said the track has shifted much of its advertising.
Wells said the track had previously run $500,000 in advertising in the local paper but relations soured when the paper failed to cover a $650,000 Quarter Horse stakes race won by a horse with an Oklahoma owner and ridden by popular rider G. R. Carter.
"They told us we weren't a sport," Wells said. The track cut its print advertising budget and shifted to more online and social media promotion.
Racing Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez said riders have noticed the dwindling coverage of horse racing in the newspaper.
"When I was riding in the 1990s, they would always cover horse racing. Now we can't even get the feature race on the weekend covered except for tracks like Keeneland and Saratoga (Race Course)," Velazquez said. "It doesn't make any sense."
Stephen Panus, vice president of communications for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, acknowledged that many newspapers have discontinued racing coverage. He encouraged the riders to embrace social media, like Twitter, and even write blogs in an effort to promote the sport.
Panus would like to see Breeders' Cup add to its events and make the week leading up to the two racing days as a week for fans. Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen, who organized successful jockey challenge events when he was at Lone Star Park, would like to see a similar challenge conducted the Thursday before Breeders' Cup Friday.
While rocketing salaries and mammoth stadiums present barriers to fans and athletes in other sports, panelist Mike Penna, president of Horse Racing Radio Network, noted that jockeys are close to the fans. He noted seeing many riders sign autographs as they walk back to the jocks' room after races at places like Saratoga Race Course and Keeneland. Penna said that is something the sport can build on.
Johnsen said the industry has a real asset in its retired and veteran jockeys as well. He hopes to add a golf tournament to a Kentucky Downs event that last year welcomed Hall of Fame jockeys Gary Stevens, Pat Day, Chris McCarron, Randy Romero, and Eddie Maple. Johnsen said the event was extremely popular with both regular horseplayers and bettors from the track's Instant Racing parlor.
Johnsen said you could hear a pin drop as Romero and Stevens captured the crowd's imagination while talking about their showdown in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) aboard Personal Ensign and Winning Colors, respectively.
Kentucky Downs hopes to add to the event this year, with plans started for a golf tournament as well. Johnsen also would like to start a daily jockey wager at Kentucky Downs. That wager, like the Hall of Fame night, would help support disabled riders.
"I'm personally going to work hard on this," Johnsen said. "We're going to have some more announcements ... we're going to have fun this year."
Penna would like to see corporate racing supporters use jockeys in their advertising campaigns, and noted participants in the NTRA Purchasing Program could be a good place to start. He said such ads would build the personality profiles of jockeys and help bring people to the track.
Penna said fans come out to see sports celebrities and it's often difficult for horses to build that stardom because many of them aren't around long enough. Penna also noted the excellent work jockeys already do in promoting the sport.
"In the 11 years I've been doing HRRN, I can count on one hand the number of times riders have turned me down for interviews," Penna said. "Jockeys in my opinion should be the face of the industry."
Wells said the TRA would work with the Guild to come up with sponsorship ideas that work for the industry.
Guild national manager Terry Meyocks noted that jockeys of Hispanic heritage are a natural way to build on racing's large number of Hispanic fans. On Sunday, Meyocks visited Hialeah Park for a day of live Quarter Horse racing which drew a large, enthusiastic, overwhelmingly Hispanic crowd.
Meyocks also said it is important to not overlook small things. He said jockey trading cards have always proven popular, especially with young fans, at tracks that have released them. He said jockeys would continue their commitment to community involvement, including visits to schools and hospitals.
Retired jockey Ramon Dominguez said riders need to let tracks know they are interested in helping any way needed to promote racing.
"There is a lot of room to improve and a lot can be done with marketing the jockey," Dominguez said. "We have to let people know that we're open and willing to help in any way we can."
To watch one of the Remington Park commercials, click here.