Commentary

Come one, come all

Updated: August 13, 2012, 10:45 AM ET
By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

When you work in the Thoroughbred industry for a living, sometimes it is easy to forget that information you take for granted can be overwhelming to someone who is new.

That is never more clear than when I go to the racetrack with friends who are only casually interested in the sport. More than once I have had a friend who wanted to bet but was intimidated by the process. Getting the lingo down can take time, and fumbling over your wager cannot only result in the wrong ticket but restless and angry crowds in line behind you.

Usually I coach my friends on what to say and help them when they are in line, but for the more timid ones, I occasionally just place the bet for them.

It is the betting equivalent of pulling out your check book in the express lane at the grocery store.

Usually I coach my friends on what to say and help them when they are in line, but for the more timid ones, I occasionally just place the bet for them.

With memories of wagers past in my mind, it is hard not to find the concept of America's Best Racing an interesting one. The initiative launched four months ago in an effort to elevate the sport's best products, attract new fans, and turn casual fans into more avid participants.

The end game for America's Best Racing, which is a joint venture between The Jockey Club and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, is to increase the profile and visibility of this country's best Thoroughbred racing events, with a primary focus on the sport's lifestyle and competition.

In the days leading up to the The Jockey Club's 60th Annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing, I chatted about the initiative with Stephen Panus, who is the vice president of communications for the NTRA and America's Best Racing. It is no secret that horse racing desperately needs new fans, and one of the best ways to do that is by making the sport more accessible to the average person.

One of the key components of America's Best Racing is an on-track fan hub dubbed "Racing 101" to help newbies get over their initial fears. If they leave the track that day with a positive experience, the odds are they are going to tell their friends.

"It is no different than someone walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and being intimidated by a Renoir vs a Van Gogh," explained Panus. " If they put on the headphones and someone explains it to them, now they are engaged and become active. They can tell their family, 'Hey I went to the Met, I had a good time, and I actually learned about art.' We are teaching fans not only about the history of the track but how to engage in it.

"We are not telling them come waste your money. We are saying if you are interested in learning how to bet and you want to try it out, knowledge is power. We will give you knowledge and we will give you power, and you can determine how often you want to play."

The fan hubs are not only about learning how to gamble. Racing personalities from jockey Rosie Napravnik to trainer Graham Motion are known to stop by to give an interview, which adds a touch of celebrity to the experience. Furthermore, questions like "why does a jockey ride Horse A over Horse B?" are welcomed instead of ridiculed.

Those behind America's Best Racing have been very deliberate about choosing which venues and which race days Racing 101 makes an appearance. They are aiming to take part in racing's best days, at its best tracks. While some have questioned this tactic, the logic behind it is sound.

It is the same reason the NBA focuses on its best teams and doesn't put the Hornets on TV on Christmas Day, they put the Lakers on.

-- Stephen Panus, NTRA VP of Communications
"We are going to be at signature events," said Panus. "It is the same reason the NBA focuses on its best teams and doesn't put the Hornets on TV on Christmas Day, they put the Lakers on. The NBA, the NFL focus on the best teams. That's what we need to focus on. We have great events, but mainstream doesn't know that. They see the Kentucky Derby and maybe the Preakness and that is about it. Most don't even know about the Breeders' Cup."

In order to make racing easier to follow, America's Best Racing is presenting it as two seasons each year: races leading up to the Triple Crown in the spring and races leading up to the Breeders' Cup in the fall.

Anyone who has been in the Thoroughbred industry for any significant length of time is aware that this is far from the sport's first attempt to grow its fan base. But one thing this new initiative has going for it that others did not is use of modern technology, especially when trying to attract the younger fan.

"With the advent of digital and social media, you are able to reach a lot more people in a much quicker, cost efficient manner," said Panus. "You can generate a lot more word of mouth. If our strategy is pure TV, we are going to lose the battle."

America's Best Racing is only four months old, and whether it will be a successful venture in the long run remains to be seen. That said, it is working now and tracks seem to be enthusiastic about partnering up with the initiative. In an industry where getting one person to agree with another about practically anything can be a chore, almost everyone can agree that drawing in more people and helping them become passionate, educated fans is a good thing.

The next time Racing 101 will make an appearance is the weekend of Aug. 18-19. The initiative will be represented at Arlington Park on Arlington Million day, as well as at Saratoga to coincide with the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes. If you are curious about America's Best Racing, you can also visit and check out videos, tutorials and more.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.