Horse Racing: Join the 21st century, or else!

Apr 21, 2009 5:05 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Experts: high tech part of the solution

There was a major conference on racing held recently in Las Vegas at Bellagio. It was not publicized, intentionally, because it was part of a Racing Congress of six or more racing organizations, and was designed, in part, to provide a discussion forum on the problems of the racing industry today.

There was no shortage of material.

Public comment was not part of the proceedings, mostly because of time restraints, but it was missing in the discussions of why people go to racing, or why they do not. A delegation of bettors, if one had been included, probably would have contributed greatly to the discussion.

It will be recalled that Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world, or at least the western world, once had a racetrack that failed. The promoters obviously thought it was a natural, but the people who bet in Las Vegas, like gamblers everywhere, want fast action. Racing needs time to enjoy. The casinos of Vegas cater to quick action, controlled by the player, not the luxury or atmosphere or study needed at the track or on the Internet.

Among the most interesting presentations at the Racing Congress was a panel on social networking on the Internet, how racing might be missing the boat in getting in on this phenomenon – or not getting on – just as it missed getting on television. Racing was there at the creation of television, and did not have the foresight to grab it and utilize it, as football and auto racing did, and lost generations of sports fans since.

The panel on the use of technology in racing – things like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – was addressed by experts. Bill Shanklin of the University of Akron in Ohio, one of the real experts on the subject of marketing in racing, was the moderator, and the panel included Jack Schibrowsy, professor of marketing at the University of Nevada here in Las Vegas. Both had reservations and concerns on the use of Internet technology in racing, but panel member Steve May, a very bright graduate student in the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona, made it clear that his peers – the young people racing hopes to attract – are constant users. The fourth panel member, Andrew MacDonald, vice president of marketing and communications at one of the most progressive racetracks in the world, Woodbine in Toronto, brought the big gathering of listeners up-to-date on how Woodbine was interacting with its customers.

I thought, as I listened to these very smart people, that the people we should also have been listening to, along with them, were representatives of the thousands in this city who gamble. We could have learned from them, and you, a ready-built consumer roundtable, what they bet on and why they do it or don’t do it.

They were the silent majority in this case, and they were missed.

One of racing’s major problems is negative publicity, media’s love for trouble, violence, bad news. Media is quick to leap on those stories, but slow to report the fascinating side of racing and gaming.

Their reactions to the death of two horses – Barbaro and Eight Belles – were instantaneous and universal. Today’s public does not like animal abuse, and in recent weeks that subject arose again with the discovery of 177 emaciated horses in miserable condition on the farm of Ernie Paragallo, a major thoroughbred trainer who owned Unbridled Song, a Florida Derby and Wood Memorial winner and early Kentucky Derby favorite in 1996. Paragallo has since then cashed in annually and handsomely, like an annuity, on his stud fees. This latest negative event cast criticism on Paragallo, not racing, but exacerbated the related issue of mistreatment of horses.

Jack Schibrowsky, who was the only non-racing man on the Bellagio panel, asked a key question. He wanted to know how many in the crowd of racing executives had a public relations crisis plan in place and ready to use when something bad, like the deaths or abuse, hit the headlines.

They are critically important, of course, to counteract, as far as possible, the bad news. They certainly can’t silence it, but they can illuminate what is being done to prevent it. Schibrowsky pointed out that Vegas was very good at this, that most of the big hotels with casinos have plans in place as to how to respond when potentially damaging events occur.

Racing has a few national groups to speak for it – the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in the runners and Harness Racing Communications with the trotters and pacers – but most tracks do not have their own damage control plans.

A central voice – a commissioner of racing – could serve the industry well. With each state zealously guarding its own territorial rights, and with infighting as natural to racing as it is genetically to cockfighting, a commissioner would have to walk to work on water. This is not the NFL or the NBA. States, not tracks, control racing’s destinies. But each can Tweet on Twitter, or use YouTube or Facebook or a host of other emerging technologies. The message at Bellagio was that they better not miss this boat.