Growing the Game – Educating Horse Racing Newbies

Belmont Park crowd


by Tom Amello

The New York Racing Association and the success of its Belmont Stakes program are always held hostage to the outcome of the Preakness Stakes. To increase both on-track attendance and total handle, in the event there might be no Triple Crown on the line at Belmont, NYRA in early February of 2014 announced significant changes to its traditional Belmont Stakes Day card. President and CEO Chris Kay explained NYRA’s intention to “create a day that would grab people’s attention in classic, bigger-than-life, New York Style.” Good idea.

But, California Chrome’s convincing wins in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, coupled with three weeks of hype across all forms of media, dealt both NYRA, and to some extent the Thoroughbred industry, an interesting hand. Instead of hosting a normal Belmont Stakes crowd in the 35,000-45,000 range, upwards of 100,000 (102,199) could be expected. Great for NYRA, great for growing the game…or was it?

Thoroughbred racing’s single greatest challenge in growing the game is turning fans into horseplayers. Logistics of handling the comings, goings and comforts of a huge Belmont crowd to assure a great experience aside, prior to Belmont week I wondered what, if anything, NYRA would do to capitalize on the untold thousands of “newbies” and casual fans filling the house. Specifically, would NYRA attempt to differentiate between the ‘newbie,’ aka casual race fan, and the regular? Would ‘guests’ be invited to identify themselves? Would they be asked to complete a mini-survey? Would NYRA glean personal info to identify needs, or establish and maintain contact? Would there be on- track ‘fan education’ programs for the uninitiated? By not appearing before NY turf press and media as of this writing, Mr. Kay prevented these (and other questions) from being raised.

Thoroughbred racing gets “newbies” and fans to the track.  Just look at big race day events. The more pressing problem is what to do FOR newbies to enable and empower them to feel comfortable “playing” our game; comfortable enough to come back sooner and more often. I’m in the game because of my father and uncle, two NYC punters who never met a favorite they could like, and consequently, endured long losing streaks between scores. Most horseplayers I know, were first brought to the game by someone, often older, who introduced, mentored and nurtured them. My point goes to the steep learning curve caused by the arcane numbers, trainer stats and angles that are the past performances, a learning curve that discourages and drives ‘newbies’ lacking a nurturing mentor away from the game.

My good friend Vic Zast maintains a horseplayer must learn to “have fun while losing.”  I agree because it’s so difficult to win money at the track. But wagering fuels and drives the game. So, for new comers to the sport to become horseplayers, they MUST, in my opinion, be given some expectation that they can make winning or near-winning wagers…because holding a ticket on a horse in contention from the sixteenth pole to the wire IS the “sizzle” that Thoroughbred racing has to sell. How can a horse racing ‘newbie’ be expected to “have fun while losing” and come back to the track if always holding tickets on horses never in contention and “dead” at the top of the stretch?

I’m not engaging in rocket science here. Thoroughbred racing may be viewed as a three-legged stool, each stool representing tracks, owners/trainers/jockeys, and bettors. IN this model, wagering is integral. Therefore, ‘newbies’ must learn to wager, and I’m not talking about mere terminology. In this context, in my opinion, all other forms of marketing intended to “enhance the on-track experience” and draw folks into the game, surely important efforts, are incidental.

The New York Racing Association implemented a good idea with changes to its Belmont Stakes program. That plus California Chrome’s quest for the Triple Crown resulted in non-stop buzz about Thoroughbred racing and record handle for NYRA. But, other than another big-race-day event, how did this particular big race-day grow the game? What else could be done?

Only pundits offer opinions without offering solutions. I’m not a pundit, so here’s a solution with potential to address the problem: “Gateway to the Game”(TM) is my unique concept and successful model for fan education designed to increase the probability ‘newbies’ and casual recreational players to wager on “live” horses, horses that will be in contention in the race to the wire. The model flattens the learning curve by not relying on past performances. For more information, individuals and industry personnel may contact me at

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