Perception Improves, But Work Far From Over

Positive trends in public perception of racing don't mean the work is done.

Positive trends in the public perception of horse racing reinforce the need for the industry to work even harder, horsemen were told Dec. 5.

The discussion kicked off the first day of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association winter convention in Tucson, Ariz. The convention leads into other industry events, including the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing & Gaming, which begins Dec. 8.

The National HBPA believes horsemen and racing fans share common interests and should work together to promote Thoroughbred racing, but there is a challenge at the outset.

“In many cases, we have difficulty identifying who the fan really is,” said National HBPA president Joe Santanna, who represents the organization on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association board of directors.

NTRA senior vice president of communications Keith Chamblin offered details on the results of a 2009 online survey authorized by the NTRA and done by SocialSphere. The survey, which gauges the opinions of sports fans, core racing fans, and industry insiders, is in its third year.

In 2007, there were questions about use of anabolic steroids in racehorses and suspensions involving high-profile trainers. In 2008, there was the catastrophic breakdown of Eight Belles; acknowledgment Big Brown raced on steroids; and a hearing by Congress into racing’s problems.

“Things had gotten dramatically worse (from 2007 to 2008),” Chamblin said.

The events led to formation of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, which launched in the fall of 2008 and by the end of this year expects to have about 15 racetracks accredited according to a code of standards. Perception of the industry has improved this year, but in some areas it’s not where it was before 2007.

According to the survey of more than 1,900 individuals, the number of core racing fans that bet once a week was 57% in 2008 versus 43% this year, not a surprising drop given economic circumstances. The number of core fans that bet $200-plus went from 33% to 28%.

In terms of safety and integrity, respondents that believe the industry treats horses and horsemen well, and that the sport overall is healthy, numbered 28% last year versus 37% this year. On the question of whether racing has integrity, the percentages were 35% in 2007, 27% in 2008, and 34% in 2009.

Among core fans, 70% said they don’t believe there is “widespread cheating” in Thoroughbred racing—but that means three in 10 aren’t convinced.

“We still have a lot of work to do convincing our best customers that the game is on the up-and-up,” Chamblin said.

The work of the alliance apparently has taken root. In 2008, 18% of sports fans said Thoroughbred racing should be banned, and—surprisingly—12% of core fans said the same. This year, it fell to 4% of sports fans and 1% of core fans, according to the research.

One survey question showed, if nothing else, the power of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Among sports fans, 38% said they followed the exploits of the filly Rachel Alexandra closely, while among core fans, the number was 98%.

Rachel Alexandra won the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), while Mine That Bird won the Derby the next day and has failed to win another race since. Still, the gelding captured more attention among sports fans.

“As popular as Rachel Alexandra was during the spring and summer, she still wasn’t as popular as Mine That Bird, and there’s one reason for that—the Kentucky Derby,” Chamblin said.

Michael Amo, chairman of Thorofan, said the group has grown from 250 members in 22 states in 2008 to 468 members in 30 states this year. Thorofan attempts to expose people to all aspects of racing, not just those involving pari-mutuel wagering.

Amo said growth of the fan base is just as important as increasing handle. The industry, he said, must do its part by breaking down walls that keep the fan from experiencing things such as life on the backstretch.

“We want young people to begin to understand what the sport is all about,” Amo said. (Accessing) the backside is a big, big issue for us, and there are many inconsistencies (from track to track).”

Amo said racing fans are a “different breed than other sports fans” in that they generally become more involved in the nuances of the business. Therefore, he said, they should have more input.