The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Teacher, Teacher
You've probably seen them at the track or on television or YouTube – the Horseplayernow.com team sharing knowledge about the many aspects of handicapping and the racing life.
Since 2009, Horseplayernow.com has provided handicapping analysis for online players and a live chat platform for handicappers to discuss the races as they happen. In its third year, Night School is a weekly online education resource that covers a wide range of handicapping and racing topics in live, interactive seminars featuring special guest experts.
We talked with Horseplayernow.com's Jeremy Plonk about the business of handicapping education.
How did Horseplayernow.com get started, and how has it evolved?
Like most businesses, necessity is the mother of invention. I wanted to find a way to marry my skills as a sports writer and racing analyst with modern technology. Getting a degree in journalism in 1994, while Microsoft was rolling out Windows and America Online became a household commodity, wasn't the best timing in the world for someone who dreamed of putting together magazines. When I decided to part ways with my editorship at The HorsePlayer Magazine in 2008 for business reasons, I began a series of off-shoot websites that eventually morphed into Horseplayernow.com in 2009. The goal then, as it remains today, is to be live and current with analysis, hence the “NOW” part.
What services do you offer, and what's the overall mission of Horseplayernow.com?
We try to touch people – and teach people – in real time. I am a die-hard Oklahoma Sooner, a card-carrying alumnus and I follow our teams from afar now that I live back home in Pennsylvania. One day a few years ago I caught a live blog of the Big 12 basketball tournament on Cover It Live, and instantly was communicating courtside with the beat reporters covering the game. I thought to myself, we NEED to make this work in horse racing. It's the ultimate vehicle for live information in a sport that lives off of live information. Horseplayernow.com has been an annual subscriber to Cover It Live since then and has hosted more than a million chatters/viewers following our live racing analysis and teaching programs online. At last count, I think we had topped 5,000 hours of live online chats. We present these live blogs/chats for various racetracks and online wagering companies and organizations in an attempt to bring at-home players to them.
We do offer a handicapping product, the BUZZ report, which is a horses to watch service from our national team of handicappers and it also includes suggested exotic wagers, stakes picks, selected full-card picks from big meets, etc. The BUZZ revenue helps sustain our business model to do some other things. I'm proud of our handicapping team: Joe Kristufek, Caton Bredar, Brian W. Spencer, Brian Nadeau, Jerry Shottenkirk, Terry Turrell, Jeff Nahill and then Bob Neumeier and Kurt Hoover at select times of the year as well.
How do you make money? Is this a full-time business/job for you?
I work from home, and even so, my wife and daughter never see me, so I had better be making money at it! Running your own business is very much a full-time job, whether you sell tacos or run a racing website. One important lesson I learned from Tom Quigley during my time working for him at HorsePlayer is this: There is a huge difference between being No. 1 in charge and No. 2. When the big burden for the operation is on you, only then will you realize the cavern. He was right.
But I love the challenge. I appreciate the sparring that goes with running a business and standing up for yourself when you have to battle in the trenches and boardrooms with some huge entities in this industry. This operation is financially successful and I'm proud of that. I don't try to sugarcoat what we do as some kind of philanthropy for the racing industry. Treating it as a business is what gives it credibility and longevity. There are plenty of nice online sites out there doing it for fun or without a real business plan; they come and go. If you want to stick around, there's only one way to keep score. Paying mortgages, saving for your daughter's tuition, those kinds of things keep the nose to the grindstone and make you better. Responsibility is a great motivator.
When you first started Night School a couple of years ago, it seemed an ambitious project to do a weekly handicapping class all year long. But it's now in its 3rd year. Why has it been successful?
We do 40 weeks annually of Night School, so we do take some time off during the winter. We've had more than 1 million views of the lessons and materials, which range from videos to live chats to radio broadcasts to downloadable study materials. It's been successful because horse racing is the greatest game on earth and people want to learn about it for one reason: Your success or failure here is real. If you root for the Yankees and they lose, you go home sad. If you bet on the four-horse and he loses, you go home broke. I take personal pride and accountability in every guest we bring on Night School to teach. I think the customer deserves that. The reason we've had longevity, too, is our ability to attract quality sponsors. You'd be fooling yourself if you think a program like this that takes so long to produce each week and do the right way can be done without revenue. But you have to deliver results to get sponsors and we're grateful racing customers have entrusted us to teach them. Plus, Joe Kristufek and I work really, really hard at it. Nothing good comes easily.
Who is the audience for Night School? Have you been able to lure in new fans to racing?
This may come across the wrong way, but I could care less about creating new fans. My only concern is creating new customers. Pimlico hiring Maroon 5 to play the Preakness infield is a great way to lure new fans. NBC Sports doing two hours of pre-race coverage at the Triple Crown creates new fans. Bobbleheads, calendars and ballcaps all are in the pursuit of new fans. My mission never has been to make someone a fan; I'm about making them a customer for life. That's not being a degenerate or some other dubious word that folks – and even some industry executives – want to use to paint horseplayers. There is absolutely no shame in the business that we are in, and we had better start acting like it. We sell bets on horses, every single one of us working in the racing industry. If someone can't deal with that one lone source that funds your paycheck and mine, then move on to a more “wholesome” enterprise that satisfies your personal insecurities.
If I didn't smash the soap box, to answer your question, Night School's audience is a wonderful cross-section from newbies to die-hards. They trend in their 50s, by age, on average, and I love that. That tells me that Night School is serving its mission of developing players and customers, not kids who want to come out and wear fedoras and drink. I have no issues with that crowd, please know, but I just don't see the point in overplaying a marketing budget to folks who are both disinterested and incapable financially and time-wise of being your core audience. The Night School audience is educated, mature and eager. We track them through their voluntary registrations via demographic and wagering information they provide us each session. We incentivize them with prizes to register and share with us so we can understand who they are without requiring a hard-sell sign-up that turns people off. No doubt we've brought young people to the mix as well; we've met them online and on the road.
You also do outreach events at the track, teaching people about handicapping. What kind of response have you gotten from both fans and racetracks?
We have been doing an on-track teaching experience at the Preakness since 2010, and this year we were honored with the Maryland Jockey Club's Special Award of Merit at the Alibi Breakfast. It was a flattering gesture. In 2012, we pitched The Jockey Club and its America's Best Racing venture called “Racing 101” to contract us as their instructors. We continued that this year, and between The Jockey Club dates and our own Night School Tour dates that we sold, we will do 22 events this year from Toronto to Florida to California. Big tracks like Keeneland and Del Mar, smaller tracks like Presque Isle Downs and Remington Park next Sunday for Oklahoma Derby Day.
Places have rolled out the red carpet for us and treated us like royalty. Parx put us up on their big jumbotron on the side of the building to promote the Tour stop for a month. Mountaineer made promotional posters of us to let fans know when to come and learn. It's been very flattering. The customers and fans love it. They ask if we're going to be there every day. Hopefully we leave a mark and inspire tracks to create their own on-site teams that do what we do. It's not about putting friendly people in customer service; it's about putting legitimate horseplayers and bettors in the tents to help these people. We travel with people like Joe and I, Caton, our two Brians, Jill Byrne and others – but always horseplayers.
From your vantage point, what is the biggest obstacle to getting the casual fan more interested in betting?
The biggest obstacle without question is not having a mentor for each person who has a question. Even a track well-stocked in fan education/player development might have one employee on staff for every 1,000 people in the building. Most everyone we talk to “gets it” within a few minutes. This is not rocket science: An exacta is two horses, a trifecta three horses, a 5-to-1 shot pays $5 profit for every $1 bet, etc. The vast majority of people only need to ask us a question one time and they are on their way to at least understanding what they are buying, and rooting for, when the horses run past them.
We spend way too much time bemoaning how hard it is to handicap. I've been handicapping since I was about 5-6 years old and I'll be 42 in two weeks. I still learn something new every day. So what's wrong with a newbie taking handicapping advice through a tipsheet or the newspaper or TV commentators for that part of the process? If we can teach them to bet properly, they can find plenty of ways to be pointed in the right direction of horses worth including as they gradually learn to handicap. Don't spend the first day or two with a newbie at the track trying to teach them a process that you yourself have taken a lifetime to develop. Teach them the bet types, smart money management and what they are buying.
What have you learned about the way racing/handicapping is presented to the public?
Dumbing down the process of betting the horses is the exact wrong thing to do. All I hear industry people say is how intimidating everything is to the outsider and we need to change this and that. It's only intimidating in volume; so the solution is to truncate things and categorize things, but not dumb them down. We don't need a new “idiot” wager because customers aren't sophisticated enough to understand an exacta box. For instance, when we deal with newcomers, we don't teach the multi-race wagers unless they specifically ask about them. We truncate the options so that they clearly learn what win, place, show, exacta and trifecta are before they start spanning their bets over multiple races and several hours.
This also is why we do a different Night School topic each week. We try to keep learning categorized and truncated. If you spend 90 minutes one week learning money management, then another week's 90-minute lesson on turf handicapping, and another week on understanding odds and the toteboard, you broaden your big picture. And none of it had to be dumbed down. Dumbing something down for a newbie just means that person is going to have to re-learn it the right way, new terms/jargon, etc., when they continue their development. Why would we want to teach them twice? Every sport has jargon, from a dog-leg in golf to a cover-two defense in football to a triple lutz in figure skating. Ours is no more or less intimidating. When you hit some jargon, you simply stop and define it. You don't find other words to redefine it.
What are your plans for the Breeders' Cup this year?
To win a lot of money! That's why we play, right? On a business level, I strive that we put out the most honest and comprehensive products possible so that customers feel as though they are playing the Breeders' Cup races with every bit as much mental arsenal as we are as a staff. I never want someone to say, “Yeah, I saw what you picked, but what do you REALLY like?” I'm sure we'll be providing a live chat on Friday and Saturday during the races so fans watching from home and horseplayers betting from home can interact with the experts. Our fan education troupe will be onsite at Santa Anita in conjunction with The Jockey Club's “Racing 101” and teaching the fans there Friday and Saturday hands-on with a group of five skilled educators.
What's an idea you'd like to come to fruition in the future?
I'd like to see a major league circuit of top tracks, races and horses working together in some fashion. My friend Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds hinted to our Night School class earlier this summer that something was in the works amongst a major group of industry players and I'm fascinated to see what evolves. There's just too much racing product out there. I know I've used the word truncate a few times already, but less is more in so many ways.
The Horseplayernow.com team discusses handicapping stakes races in a recent edition of Night School.