The final race of the day had been run. Only 90 minutes earlier, Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Sir Dudley Digges pulled off a 15-1 upset under Julien Leparoux in the 157th running of the Queen’s Plate.
Yet many in the crowd of 37,063 were not streaming out of Woodbine toward the parking lot, but in the direction of a music stage on the west end of the property adjacent to the paddock.
Their day wasn’t done.
Waiting for them were The Strumbellas, then Matthew Good and finally Hedley, the British Columbia pop group that played during the closing ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
This is the new face of horse racing, and those who like to think of themselves as traditionalists are going to have to get used to it.
There is no better afternoon of racing in North America than Queen’s Plate day for two diverse cultures to collide. At one extreme are the older gentlemen in their morning suits and top hats and their elegantly dressed female partners. At the other is a younger crowd, the men sporting sneakers, shorts, fedoras and blazers, the women showing off the latest fashion trends, topped by fascinators or wide-brimmed hats. They don’t look like the typical racing fans you’ll see on a Friday afternoon
In truth, many of them weren’t there to bet on the horses or to watch the Queen’s Plate. They were part of the Hats & Horseshoes Party, an event that included millinery design competition, specialty cocktails and games like croquet, horseshoes and Bocce ball. It was an event where the idea was to see and be seen.
It’s no different than the summer concert series that has been a big part of the successful Del Mar meeting in Southern California or the entertainment lineup during the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival at Belmont Park in New York.
Let’s look at other sports. There was a time when halftime during college football bowl games or the NFL’s Super Bowl provided an opportunity for marching bands to pull out the John Philip Sousa songbook (and fans to use the restroom and grab a beverage). Nowadays, many remember big games not by the winners or the final score but the halftime entertainment, from Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction to Beyoncé’s controversial performance.
Guys like me don’t need to be entertained to stay engaged during a six-hour day at the races. The afternoon usually goes by too quickly: watch the race, then the replay, head to the paddock for a look at the next group of runners, study the past performances and place a bet. Repeat 10 times. No problem.
Try that with millennials who can’t go five minutes without staring at their cellphones and who look at 30 minutes between races as an eternity. They need to be entertained if we can get them to the track and keep them there.
That’s why a day at the races can’t just be a day of racing. It has to be more. Just as professional sports began contests, fan interaction and mascot races during breaks in the action, horse racing has to figure out how to keep newcomers engaged without assaulting the intelligence of fans and horseplayers who have been supporting the game for years.
Woodbine Entertainment Group has applied this same philosophy to its WEGZ off-track wagering entertainment centre in the Toronto suburb of Vaughn. I had a chance to visit WEGZ on a quiet Thursday night during my visit to this year’s Queen’s Plate, and I liked what I saw.
One of the best places to recruit potential horseplayers are sports bars. Sports fans do like to make a wager now and then (legal or otherwise), and providing a great atmosphere to watch sports on television, then bringing racing and legalized betting into that arena, makes perfect sense.
Is all of this going to be enough to make horse racing at Woodbine work financially after the five-year deal with the provincial government runs out in 2019? Growing a sport that has steadily regressed over the last 25 years is not going to be easy. There are no magic wands or guaranteed strategies. This much, however, is known: the status quo will not get the job done.
“Just as professional sports began contests, fan interaction and mascot races during breaks in the action, horse racing has to figure out how to keep newcomers engaged without assaulting the intelligence of fans and horseplayers who have been supporting the game for years.”