Industry leaders differ on ways to improve horse racing
Hall of Fame thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert and self-made billionaire horse owner Mike Repole both love the sport of horse racing, but they have very different ideas on how to fix the business.
“Big days and giveaways bring people in,” said Baffert, who trained 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and who has won 12 Triple Crown races.
Repole is a winner, too, having founded BodyArmor and Vitaminwater, and spent some of his money on his lifelong love of horse racing. He doesn’t think the sport needs small changes as much as a complete overhaul.
“The best way to improve the business is getting a governing body that oversees all facets of the industry,” Repole said. “The sport needs a racing commissioner like all other sports that would work closely with the racetracks, the breeders, the trainers, the jockeys, the owners and the fans.”
SportsBusiness Journal asked multiple industry leaders for their ideas on how to improve horse racing, and while many gave different answers, four main themes emerged: better storytelling, customer service, going global and tech innovation.
Kip Levin, CEO of TVG, said the cable horse racing network is focused on helping some of its track partners to upgrade to HD. “It’s hard to ask new fans to sample the sport when it isn’t 100 percent in HD,” Levin said.
Walker Hancock, managing director of the historic Claiborne Farm, is interested in improving the sport’s fan experience. That’s why, two years ago, he started an official tour and visitors center for the Paris, Ky.-based breeding operation. Founded in 1910, Claiborne is the place where six of horse racing’s Triple Crown winners were bred, and where Secretariat stood at stud.
“We had tours before, but they were unorganized,” Hancock said. But Hancock’s new tour has brought thousands of visitors. “It was something we didn’t realize until the last couple of years, we can tell this great story,” he said.
NBC owns the long-term rights to broadcast all of the major U.S. horse racing events, as well as its recently acquired rights to broadcast Britain’s Royal Ascot meet and has invested in technology to tell horse racing stories.
“When they head out to the track on a nice, sunny day, people are captivated,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “The challenge continues to be getting potential fans out that first time.”
NBC tries to do that on television by showing the people, the stories and the races using special cameras, like a “jockey cam” attached to a race rider’s helmet.
“Someday down the road, I would like for the viewer at home to be able to go online for every major race and be ‘on board’ with the horse/jockey of their choice for every race with two camera angles — front and back,” said NBC horse racing producer Rob Hyland.
NBC began broadcasting the Royal Ascot races last year, and it is not the only horse racing business interest that is going global. Some tracks are focused on international business, either attracting horses and fans from around the world or pushing the American product out globally.
Churchill Downs, in recent years, installed a new points system for horses racing in Europe and Japan to get a prized spot in the 20-horse starting gate at the Kentucky Derby.
“With the introduction of our Japanese and European Road to the Derby programs, we continue to broaden the global reach of our marquee event and look to unify an already passionate international racing fan base around our unique event on the first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said.
As an added bonus, the horse that won this year’s inaugural European Road to the Kentucky Derby is named Gronkowski, after the New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, which generated some NFL media publicity.
At the New York Racing Association, President and CEO Chris Kay has taken a multipronged approach to improving the business and the fan experience, including essentially creating the NYRA’s own television station. “We’ve made great strides in the last few years on our internal TV productions to the point where we now deliver more than 200 hours of live racing each year working with our broadcast partners at NBC, Fox Sports and MSG Networks,” Kay said.
Additionally, NYRA has launched apps that provide a customized portal to its races including replays and stories in HD, as well as an app that allows customers to wager, buy tickets, find parking and order food and merchandise.
One of Kay’s first orders of business when he began as CEO in 2013 was to enhance customer relations. And NYRA was the first racing association to hire a chief experience officer, Lynn LaRocca. Both Kay and LaRocca said that while they are pursuing the newest digital initiatives, they also are reinforcing tried-and-true methods to retain fans and get new ones.
“It has to be a blend of good, old customer service matched with the tools that we’re now lucky to have at our disposal,” LaRocca said. “We work in a business where people skills really matter. Whether it’s at a Saratoga box office on Travers Day, or a more subdued Thursday afternoon at Belmont Park, we value those fundamental skills.”
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has continued to thrive during the last few decades of horse racing’s downturn, and the main reason is “location, location, location,” said CEO Joe Harper. Del Mar is just north of San Diego and literally borders the West Coast.
“It’s hard for others to listen to our advice when we are sitting out here, 100 yards from the Pacific Ocean,” Harper says. “What advice could I give Aqueduct in the middle of January?”
But old-fashioned customer service is very important to Harper, who said he hires people not just based on their experience or education, but on their personality.
“It’s important in who we are — the smiling face that understands the proper thing is not telling the people where the bathroom is but waking with them and showing them where the bathroom is,” Harper said. “It’s the extra step.”