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Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Time to end the neglect

By Paul Moran
Special to ESPN.com

There will never be a day when horseplayers return to the track in meaningful numbers. They are gone forever, sequestered in homes armed with computers and cell phones, scattered at simulcast facilities and off-track betting parlors, which have become senior centers. Their survival and activity is evident in the betting pools but the players have largely abandoned the sport's live venues great and modest.

Bemont Park
Belmont would benefit from a more intense marketing plan?
There are exceptions, but only two: Saratoga in the summer, Keeneland in the spring and autumn. But these are unique places and meetings that do not go on endlessly.

Once, this group was of great concern to racing's largely befuddled marketers, an aging affront to their efforts to lure a younger audience to racetracks, a reminder of abject failure. In fact, they have always been the sport's fiscal bulwark, recognized as such or not. They have time and money, the essentials of playing horses on a regular basis. Nowadays, the demographic target seen as most desirable may well be living in a horseplaying parent's basement, though that is another issue entirely. Once, the geezer generation that now empowers the game, was the target demographic. Eventually, retired and free to pursue their interests beyond earning a living, they showed up at the races, where the on-track experience had already begun to decline, racinos are everywhere, horseplayer found themselves shunned and alternatives provided convenience and civility. There is indeed no place like home and none of these people are fond of being mistreated by racetrack managements, which have embraced unkempt, dirty facilities, surly help, exploitive pricing and substandard service as core business principles.

Still, the future health of racing, the creation of those who will wager, breed and own horses in the years going forward, is important and cultivating the now largely struggling "target" demographic, despite the current economy, has never been more important. No one is introducing this group to the sport, as did parents' relatives and friends in times past. Horseplayers are not created on the Internet. It is unlikely that a pick-six syndicate has ever been born on Twitter or FaceBook. Racing's online world, which is both substantial and robust, is the domain of the initiated.

This is a statement that does not come easily. Traditionalists retreat grudgingly, more so as they age, but the time has come to move racing into prime time and this means night racing on weekdays. There is no choice. Nobody shows up during business hours anymore.

Traditionally, racing is a daytime sport but so were baseball and football, both of which recognized an irreversible shift in the preference of the audience decades ago. Monday Night Football is probably the most important idea ever conceived by the National Football League and its television partner. The Super Bowl is played under lights. The preponderant majority of Major League Baseball games are played under light including almost all of those in the post-season.

There is, of course, much more involved in transforming the on-track experience than a change in post time. Entertaining the under-30 customers, who tend to have short attention spans, is probably as important as any single element -- a variety of good restaurants, popular bars and an array of fast-food options are starting points but success goes hand in glove with innovation. No bobble-head doll giveaway ever made a horseplayer.

Envision a racetrack with good Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and traditional American restaurants; a nightclub, several small bars, a food court, a 7 p.m. first post, eight races.

Churchill Downs has enjoyed great success with Friday-night racing, as has Hollywood Park. Twilight racing has been well received on a very limited basis at Belmont Park. Many smaller tracks, all with racinos, have been racing at night for years. The blueprint, however, is probably Hong Kong, where Happy Valley bristles with activity on Wednesday nights and nothing costs more on-track than in the surrounding community. Value for the dollar has always been a subject more popular with horseplayers than track operators.

None of this is revolutionary beyond a long-overdue recognition that tracks are empty on weekdays because most Americans are at work and on most weekends because no effort has been made to make the experience entertaining and affordable. At times, when the opportunity to do something really stupid knocks, the opposite is true. The New York Racing Association, for instance, charged $15 for a bottle of imported beer on Belmont Stakes day, $10 for domestic. Robbery has never been an effective customer service tool, almost all of the victims have functional memories. Cheap beer brings people to your door, idiots. So do effective promotions, and celebrities.

Robbery has never been an effective customer service tool, almost all of the victims have functional memories.

It follows that night racing would be accompanied by less racing. A four-day week is sufficient for any market in the nation at any time of year -- including Saratoga and Keeneland. Boutique meetings demand exclusivity and a high level of competition, Tiffany's, not Wal-Mart.

New York and Southern California are probably the markets most in need of forward thinking in the marketing department. [A recent query in the Belmont press box on Jockey Club Gold Cup day, with fewer than 9,000 in attendance on an afternoon when about six graded stakes were run, revealed that no one present knew the name of the director of marketing.] Gulfstream Park, racing's answer to the Mall of America, would lend itself to night racing, as would Calder. Arlington Park has enjoyed success with twilight racing on Fridays but there has been no expansion. The Fair Grounds, in one of the nation's preeminent party towns, would be perfect. Imagine a resurgence of live racing in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and New Orleans. It won't happen, of course, without effort, vision and innovation, three things currently in short supply.

The conclusion that it is possible to make racing relevant to an entirely new audience is by no means foregone. A meaningful renaissance would probably rate as the greatest comeback since Lazarus. But doing nothing since the '70s has produced the expected result, which is a nation of dirty, neglected racetracks frequented by no one with a better idea.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.