I think most can agree that horse racing, in all forms, accelerated its decline around the time “www” was first typed into a computer address bar …. followed up, of course, by the proliferation of casino gaming. If we were the titanic, this fateful tandem was almost certainly our iceberg.
From then until now we have been taking on water, trying to fix a hole that was too big to patch. I don’t care very much about the mistakes we made in the past; I’d rather look ahead. The future has been my driving force over the last five years, but it’s become an enigma since the arrival of COVID-19; our world literally changed overnight.
I’d like to give you my thoughts on where we are as an industry since everything has stopped, and where we could be if we thoughtfully evaluated our options.
Most of you reading this have no idea who I am. I’m a standardbred guy, and although we all have horses that look the same, our industries feel worlds apart. I’ve been a horse racing fan, a caretaker, a second trainer, a trainer, a driver, and even a politician for a furlong or two.
Today, my wife Amy and I operate the largest harness racing stable in Canada: TheStable.ca. We have 131 horses in training, owned by 796 people in 12 nations scattered across the globe. Using only hard work, entrepreneurism and innovation we achieved something few people thought possible. And, while we’re proud of our demographics, it’s how we’ve amassed these numbers that matters most.
As COVID drags on, only one thing appears certain: Our old way of doing things is gone….probably forever. There’s no point reminiscing about the “good ‘ol days”…..because, let’s face it, for many they weren’t that good. If we play our cards right, the days ahead could be our saving grace.
I’m not trying to diminish the terror that this virus has brought, but I am asking everyone to look at one of the byproducts of this disaster: Sport gamblers are starving for action, and everyday people are craving entertainment. The world is in disarray and we have an opportunity, if only for a brief moment, to breathe life into an industry that has known only decline for two generations.
Sure, mainstream sports will be back at some point, but no one knows when, or in what form. This gap is our window to draw the attention of people that may have never taken notice of horse racing before.
They say the first step to solving any problem is understanding that you have one. To say that our industry has failed to connect with the general citizenry would be an understatement. We have not been able to attract new fans for quite some time for a multitude of reasons, but that could change.
I think it’s pretty clear that if we are to truly engage the general public in the coming months we will need to do it on their terms, not ours. This would all start with proper marketing, and targeting a new society starved for competitive sports.
Mine, would be a two pronged approach: Attract, cultivate and grow long term relationships with a new audience; while continuing to strengthen the bond we have with our existing clientele. This would be the framework for our future and if we embrace it, I believe we can consistently grow horse racing into the future. We should:
- Reach out to gamblers who are looking for gaming action. We will have a decent sized chunk of the airwaves soon, but if we broadcast races as we always have, we’re destined for the same result. A more poignant explanation of how to wager should be available for newer viewers. Our systems should allow people the opportunity to wager on the pretty grey horse, or the horse with the funniest name, or the horse who they believe is analytically superior. Information needs to be available on all aspects of the game, not just the past performance data we’ve become accustomed to. I am aware of Dark Horse, historical racing, fix odds wagering, etc and they are important to begin to open the market.
- The second prong of this marketing strategy should revolve around first person participation or owner outreach. We need to show our new viewers both sides of the industry. Gambling on horses is exhilarating, but being an owner of a horse is affordable and represents immeasurable added value – unmatched dollar-for-dollar anywhere on the entertainment dial. Our product embodies the oldest and most powerful sales tool of all: more for less. In this case, much more. Most people will be watching their bank accounts as they embrace society’s “new normal” and affordable entertainment will be a product of choice. We have long undervalued what we have to offer the general public and now is the time to unpack horse racing for the world to see. In no sport can you become an owner and actively participant for such a modest price. We’re ready for primetime …. and there’s never been a better opportunity.
- Updating, modernizing, and expanding the entry points of our industry is absolutely paramount moving forward. We need to revisit our licensing practices and ensure the transition from intrigued fan to active owner is seamless.
Many of you may be of the belief that this is simply not attainable? It’s not realistic to belief this is actionable. But most of the measure I’ve written about today thestable.ca has already implemented in house and our numbers should speak for themselves. In fact, our racing model has less to do with racing and more to do with the experience of horse ownership. Whether it’s one start, or four per month has less effect than you would think on thestable.ca overall. We haven’t raced in over two months and we have more owners today than in February.
Ownership is affordable because of the added value. Racing is great, but only a portion of what draws our clients in, and keeps them coming back. We have brought new people in to the horse racing industry and have made their trip from fan to active owner seamless and many of them play major roles in our operation. We did this when other sports were at full strength, when casinos were operational, and when affordable entertainment was all around us. Surely horse racing can follow suit with none of the opposition we faced?
You may ask why we simply don’t just focus on only attracting gamblers and forego the ownership angle? Well, that is a great question. Without forming a bond with our new clients you will see many of them leave as soon as main stream sports comes back on line. Without the connection and added value of horse ownership we risk losing what we had gained, and that is simply bad business. Without a tether to horse racing other than just gambling we will again begin to see downward trends of the past, and expecting anything different would be foolhardy. I’ll refer you to the years 1985-2019. Spoiler alert: It didn’t go so well for us.
What I’m proposing starts with interest from racing in a time when no other sports are up and running. This blueprint then focuses on re building and strengthening our foundation.
Currently our breeders are looking down the barrel of an incredibly difficult fall sales season. Revenue will be much thinner, and a nice way to put it would be, “it will be a buyer’s market this year.” The reality is it’s likely about to get very tough for breeding farms all over North America. The only way to combat this is to provide new streams of revenue to our industry. If we cannot stimulate our entire industries economy by this fall, the breeders will be crushed and the ripple effect could very well be crippling for horse racing in the future.
What I propose will bring in new spectators, expand racetrack handles and grow our social media footprint exponentially. This keeps our content fresh, and ensures our clients stay intrigued and most importantly, stay with us.
I believe everything I just wrote is attainable.
- attract new fans in a time no other sports are running
- allow for easy access to both sides of our industry
- cultivate and grow this new interest into new participation through affordable ownership programs based on added value and a heightened experience
- facilitate the transition from fan to active owner with easy access
- focus these new resources on yearling procurement and strengthen the industry from the foundation up, leading to a stronger, brighter horse racing future for us all.
We have been given the key to a new future and I’m eager to see what we do with it. What can horse racing become post Corona virus?
Nothing is for certain, but the impossible just happened, and we would be wise to be ready for what comes next.