Fill a Void and Grow the Game

Growing the essential core of new, interested but unskilled fans stands out as Thoroughbred racing’s greatest challenge. Current big race-day marketing efforts appear to be successful at drawing crowds.

by Tom Amello

Thinking about Thoroughbred racing’s current forms of fan education somehow brought to mind the title of a well-regarded 1975 country ballad. The title, you might remember, warns mothers. A paraphrased version warns: “Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be horseplayers.” And, Mom, without innovative fan education and player development programs, you don’t need to worry…they probably won’t.

To further the point, consider these thoughts from the preface to noted author and educator James Quinn’s 2012 text The Complete Handicapper: You Can Beat the Races:
“Young adults that have come to racetracks for ancillary concerts and beer festivals, or to admire legendary champions such as Cigar or Zenyatta, ultimately will be confronted by the press of the handicapping and wagering. The experience can run downhill quickly.

From the moment the casual customer can be heard to remark, ‘Well, this is interesting, how do you do this?’ the industry has proved hapless to extend them a guided response. As a result, novices begin to lose more money than they would prefer to lose. The occasional payoffs and exotic windfalls do not reverse an inexorable pattern of defeat and financial loss.”

Thoroughbred racing is unlike any other major American sport…and “that’s a good thing.” In other sports, fans pay to watch players compete. In our great game, fans are players vying against each other via pari-mutuel wagering. For those new to the game, it’s a given that their early Thoroughbred racing experiences must be full of fun, friendship and excitement, but at its core this form of racing is “a game of skill,” a sport where, in the context of a horse race, fans who have acquired and refined a set of skills compete against other skilled horseplayers:

A Hierarchy of Skilled Horseplayers

Essential Core Players ripe for fan education and player development programs:
“Newbies”/novices/soon-to-be-horseplayers recently introduced to the game, lacking most basic understandings and skills about Thoroughbred racing, too often overwhelmed by past performances, arcane track jargon, and a steep learning curve; too often unsuccessful at wagering and driven away from the game.
Recreational players who regularly attend/participate in big race-day events like the Triple Crown Series and Breeders Cup, as well as occasionally/regularly attend or participate in boutique race meets such as Saratoga, Del Mar, Keeneland.
Serious Recreational players who follow racing year-round and participate in contests both on-track and on-line.
(Note: The following groups, essentially professionals, are equally important to the game but quite different in their play and needs:
“Wise Guys” are the near full-time or full-time players, many involved professionally in the industry, whose handicapping and wagering skills are known.
“Sharpies” are those astute individuals, largely unknown but successful bettors/syndicates, who opt to attack the betting pools while remaining well below the radar.
“Whales” are those few wagering giants often employing sophisticated programs and privately-purchased information, generating many millions in handle.

Growing the essential core of new, interested but unskilled fans stands out as Thoroughbred racing’s greatest challenge. Current big race-day marketing efforts appear to be successful at drawing crowds. The NYRA’s recent Triple Crown-enhanced Belmont Day attendance of over 102,000 with handle in excess of $150 million is further supported by significant July 5 Stars and Stripes program attendance and handle increases over this same Saturday in 2013. However, a significant gulf exists between efforts to draw new fans to the game and efforts to provide them with meaningful learning opportunities that facilitate transition from “newbie” to “Recreational Horseplayer.” Additionally, experienced players require more specific and targeted learning opportunities to fine tune their skills. Addressing and meeting this challenge begs a few questions: What must the “newbie” learn? Who will develop and provide a form of “continuing education” for experienced players? How to reach and teach all players so they learn both what we want them to learn and what they need to learn…the crossroads of curriculum and instruction.

Quality instruction causes learning. Educator Madeline Hunter said, “To say that you have taught when no one has learned is to say that you have sold when no one has bought.” That’s good advice for everyone in the teaching/learning business, including race tracks. To grow the fan base, Thoroughbred racing must reinvent fan education programs and ground them in good teaching. Good teaching involves:

• Presenting Learning Objectives (what learners will know, understand and be able to do)
• Offering both Guided Practice and Independent Practice (how to apply what you learn)
• Providing feedback (Q&A, maintaining a supportive relationship)

In coming weeks will present a series of fan education and player development opportunities for Essential Core Players. We will develop curriculum and provide instruction that adheres to the teaching-learning model described above. Our goal is to provide effective fan education and player development opportunities in a variety of formats.  Stay tuned.

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