When it comes to Thoroughbred racing and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., too much, it seems, is never enough.
Racing at Saratoga Race Course happens six days a week, often with at least 10 races per card, a schedule unmatched by any other track in the country. The city is saturated with equine iconography. A statue of Native Dancer sits prominently at the end of Union Avenue and the entrance of Congress Park. The calendar is filled with racing-related events, both on-track and off.
Nonetheless, Katie Sharp, Justin Nicholson, and Dan Tordjman sensed a void—an audience not being served, an opening for a one-of-a-kind, ambitious, blockbuster event that would, they hope, draw even more people to this small city situated midway between New York City and Montreal.
There's Comic-Con and SantaCon, Midwest Craft Con and Gen Con and FailCon. Why not Equestricon? Using those conventions—organized around a single theme and attracting the most ardent devotees—as a model, Sharp, Nicholson, and Tordjman envisioned an event that would appeal to every element of the racing industry: bettors, marketers, racing enthusiasts, historians, media, breeders, and trainers. It would feature panels and vendors and autograph signings. It would attract a national audience, perhaps even global.
And it would take place in the heart of the summer racing season at Saratoga.
"Saratoga was a no-brainer," Sharp said. "It's such a great place to start, because the fans are here, the community's here, (and) racing people are here for the meet, so it was just the easiest way to get everyone involved."
The inaugural Equestricon—the first of what organizers hope will be at least an annual event—takes place Aug. 14-15, with "kick-off" events Aug. 13, some of which are open to the public and some of which are exclusive to Equestricon VIP ticket holders. Over its two days at the Saratoga City Center, the event will feature nearly 30 panels and seminars, with additional social events and signings.
Tickets begin at $25, which includes access to parts of the program such as the exhibition hall, the keynote address on Thoroughbred aftercare by Soledad O'Brien, workshops, and networking opportunities. Access to the panels requires a $125 two-day ticket, and a $450 ticket gives the holder access to extras such as the Sunday VIP party.
Equestricon was conceived by Tordjman, a correspondent and former ambassador for America's Best Racing. He came to racing with a background in sports journalism. After meeting Sharp and Nicholson at the Keeneland January sale in 2016, he realized he'd found the perfect partners for his idea.
"You know love at first sight?" asked Tordjman, standing in the clubhouse at Saratoga. "This was friendship at first sight. I didn't have to speak to them for long to know they were like-minded people, well-rounded on a number of topics in racing and beyond. They were putting money into racing in the interest of promoting it."
The Husband-and-wife team of Sharp and Nicholson are Thoroughbred owners and breeders. Nicholson's father long had horses with trainer Jimmy Toner, and Nicholson carried on the tradition with his father's AJ Suited Racing Stable and began his own partnership, 90 North.
"He mentioned the idea to us within three days of meeting him," Nicholson said. "He said, 'Every industry has (a convention). Why don't we have one?' "
"I spent the rest of the car ride home from the airport in my notes app writing down all the ideas I had," Sharp said. "I actually went back to that list last night, and we have every single item I wrote down."
Among those ideas were handicapping, equine photography, fan access, and Thoroughbred aftercare. The organizers chose the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance as the event's charity partner.
The TAA is sponsoring two panels at Equestricon, and the trade show will include an "Aftercare Hub" with what Nicholson called "the largest collection of TAA-accredited charities at a single event ever."
In addition, $3 from each ticket purchased during the Triple Crown season will be donated to the TAA, and the VIP party will include live and silent auctions to benefit the aftercare organization.
The advisory board of Equestricon boasts a number of racing luminaries who, despite the hectic racing and event schedule at Saratoga during the racing season, agreed to give their time by serving on the board and participating in events and panels.
"It's a tremendous idea," said Graham Motion, an advisory board member who will speak on a trainers' panel and participate in a trainers' meet-and-greet with ticket holders, both of which take place Aug. 15, Saratoga's dark day. Motion has a barn at Saratoga, but during the week he frequently returns to his Fair Hill Training Center base in Elkton, Md.
"I'm all for it," Motion said. "What we need in our industry is centralization and selling ourselves a little better. We need to educate people."
Fellow board member Theresia Muller, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., is coming to Saratoga for the first time in a decade. At one time a partner in 90 North, she is a dedicated horseplayer and co-founder of Horseplayers Association of North America. She will discuss handicapping and wagering on two panels.
"In order for horse racing to be successful," she said, "you need to replenish the horseplayer population. Equestricon is angled toward the younger crowd, and it's good to get them involved. You have to become a fan before you become a horseplayer, and whatever I can do to help in some small way, I'm happy to."
Barbara Bowley of La Jolla, Calif., is a co-founder of the website The Tournament Edge, and she's flying cross-country to speak on two panels because, she said, "Equestricon is a 'watershed event' in the industry.
"It's potentially game-changing," she said. "If we can get together and start to network on common issues, we can move the sport forward in so many ways. I think you'll see some changes for the better coming out of this."
Among the outcomes she hopes for are a commissioner to unify the sport and innovation in how horse racing is marketed.
While the organizers declined to say how many tickets have already been sold, they said people from more than 30 states and a handful of countries have purchased tickets.
Saratoga Springs mayor Joanne Yepsen attended the announcement of Equestricon last summer on Broadway, and she plans to attend at least some of the convention.
"We've done everything we can as a city, and I as mayor, to promote it," she said, "and to ensure that they are being accommodated with everything they need in downtown Saratoga.
"They chose Saratoga Springs, and we're very happy to partner with them. We are a perfect venue, given that we already have so many tourists and residents that are excited about the equine industry. Equestricon belongs here."
"I'm trying to give back to the sport that has given us so much," Motion said. "It's all about getting people interested and finding out why we all love it so much."
Sunday, Aug. 13
Hall of Fame Tours with Tom Durkin: Optional "add-on" experience takes guests on a tour of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame led by longtime NYRA race caller Tom Durkin
* Handicapping Workshop
* Fasig-Tipton Sale Grounds Tour
* The Jockey Club Round Table
* Fashion Showcase
* Barn Tour With Gary Contessa
* Equestricon VIP Party
Monday, Aug. 14
Equestricon Aftercare Keynote: Media icon and OTTB owner Soledad O'Brien delivers the "Aftercare Keynote" on the main convention floor of the Saratoga Springs City Center.
* Author Series: J.M. Chodkowski and Kim Campbell
* Tournament handicapping workshop
* Stories: Racing Photography, OTTB Successes
* Meet the Wizard, Centennial Farms
* Q&A: How to Get a Job in Racing
* Racing Media—Past, Present, and Future
Tuesday, Aug. 15
Team Secretariat Autograph Signings: The legendary team behind one of the most famous racehorses signs autographs.
* Q&A: Triple Crown Jockeys, The Breeding Game, Racing Syndicates
* Author Series: Natalie Keller Reinhart, Joe Drape, Pete Fornatale, Barbara Livingston, Donna Brothers
* HANA Horseplayers' Forum
* Racetrack Safety for Animal Athletes
* Perspectives: Women in Racing, Hispanic Leaders in Racing, International Racing Viewpoints
* Advanced Handicapping Tools and Products
* Stories: Trainers' Panel, the Greatest Race Calls
* Meet Parting Glass Racing
* Leading Women Horseplayers
* STATS Race Lens
* AmWager Showcase
* B.E.S.T. Seminar Featuring Larry Colmus
* Meet and Greet with Eddie Olczyk
* Trainers Meet and Greet