Racing Education for Newcomers

by Dave Markant

Everywhere I turn, I find that commercial entities are blanketing their marketplaces with FREE training for existing and potential new customers, whether their businesses are brick and mortar, or on-line.

Just in our local papers in the Rochester, NY area, I’ve seen free classes in various vertical markets, on topics such as the ones below, held or sponsored on a regular basis, usually directly on-site where their businesses are conducted, or on-line, or both:

  • Food chains on how to cook.
  • Fabric and crafts chains on how to sew.
  • Financial services firms on how to invest.
  • Auto insurance firms on how to drive safely.
  • Health care providers on how to stay well.
  • Funeral directors on how to plan for death.
  • Spas on how to relax.
  • Software developers on how to use their programs.
  • Travel agencies on where to go.
  • Universities/colleges on how to choose one.
  • Camera shops on how to take pictures and videos.
  • Home improvement chains on how to “build it yourself.”

Need I go on?

By contrast, what is being done by the thoroughbred racing industry that approximates what’s being done in other marketplaces?

The short answer is increasingly more, but nowhere near enough.  Why not?

How to InvestIn my opinion, because learning how to make a soufflé or building a deck is fairly simple vs. learning how to handicap, which is more akin to learning how to make a full formal banquet (vs. just a soufflé) or building your own house (vs. just a deck). Learning to such extents is through semester-long courses at some vo-tech schools or junior colleges. Certificates are provided to those who complete curricula to demonstrate competencies for customers who might need such services.

In casinos, racing’s formidable competitor, even if you don’t win on your first visit, every few minutes there’s enough ding-ding-dings within earshot and enough strobe lights flashing within eyesight to reinforce you (consciously or unconsciously) and whet your appetite for a return visit. Sure, a newbie to the racetrack might see huge payoffs on the tote board, on occasion, but there’s little audibility or visibility of anyone actually collecting. In fact, it’s likely that no one on track actually collected on the big payoff.

The short attention spans of the prime generations needing to be attracted NOW clearly don’t mesh with the degree of learning required to be reinforced positively enough to stimulate their desire to learn more and play more.

Much of this is due to the vastness and complexity of the information presented and the need to learn a second language (the language of racing). It just requires too much time those younger generations are unwilling to spend. I cringe when I hear on-air racing personalities say things like “this race is for non-winners of 2 other than…”  A more understandable alternative would be “this race is for horses who have not ever won two races, excluding races where none of the horses had ever won a race- (maidens), or races in which the horse was available for sale (claiming), or special races for horses which had been available for sale at specific $$ amounts, but were not available for sale in those races (starters)”. Yes, it takes that many words to translate the conditions lingo we old-timers take for granted into English. Even with the translation, an explanation would still be needed for most new players. Adding “b” elements to the race conditions makes the translation incomprehensible for some old-timers as well.

Some newbies to racing who hit a good-priced winner or exotic more out of pure luck will be motivated to try again, perhaps after learning a little more about the game. Most others will be lost to other forms of entertainment and betting where the learning curve is not so daunting. The lucky newbies will be lost as well when their luck runs out, unless they get positive reinforcement from what little bit more they learned since their first experience.

Most current racing industry commentators agree that education is part of the answer to the future vitality of the industry. Some are actually trying to provide more of it. But, I would hypothesize here that racing education without racing simplification is a non-starter. It can’t require a semester-long curriculum to get newcomers to the point of stimulating enough positive pari-mutuel reinforcement to hold their interest. Early classes in any such curriculum should focus less on the esoteric and arcane language of racing and more on the use of simpler tools to make initial wagering decisions. There are plenty of them out there. Call them public handicappers, or touts, or selection services, or purveyors of simple handicapping guides or whatever; some of them are good enough to get newcomers to the payout window early in their education.

The industry would do well to segregate the wheat from the chaff in the crop of such services through a performance-based certification program. Then, newbies could be guided toward proven professionals and away from shysters and con artists as a strategy to facilitate newbies’ successes early in their racing experiences.

Once the newcomers have been positively reinforced by the initial racing experiences, the motivational foundation has been laid upon which further education can be constructed.

In casinos, racing’s formidable competitor, even if you don’t win on your first visit, every few minutes there’s enough ding-ding-dings within earshot and enough strobe lights flashing within eyesight to reinforce you (consciously or unconsciously) and whet your appetite for a return visit.

To achieve the overall objective of restoring the racing fan base through simplification and education, I’ve drafted a proposed job description for Racing Simplification and Education Coordinator positions. This job description can be found at this link.

In order to provide the necessary funds to support the Racing Simplification and Education initiatives, I propose that the Coordinator positions be created under the authority of each state that has jurisdiction over racing, wagering, and pari-mutuel “takeout” mechanisms for their state. The full power of each state’s authority will also be needed to compel the fundamental changes in how racing information is presented, in order to accomplish the educational goals I have described for newcomers to racing. Don’t expect those who have reaped rewards from perpetuation of the status quo to consent voluntarily to simplification when their rewards have historically been based on complexity, inaccuracy, and obfuscation of racing information.

Yes, the old timers will squeal about any increase in takeout; however, their view may be ameliorated by the fact that this increase is intended to help insure the survival of the industry they love.

Additional contributions for financial support should be solicited from other industry organizations with a stake in the industry’s survival.  The Association of Racing Commissioners should provide executive board oversight of the program.

Further commentary here is welcomed.