For the first time this year, the New York Racing Association is taking the Belmont Stakes on the road.
From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m Friday, Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan has been transformed into a mini-version of Belmont Park. The set-up includes four interactive “event zones” designed to catch the attention of some of the 750,000 people who stroll through New York's iconic train terminal each day.
The activities include a Stakes Stampede, where fans propel a horse displayed on a screen to the finish line by running in place. In the Mini Belmont Races, fans can jump on one of three mechanical ponies and compete in a race that even includes a bugler and race caller Larry Lederman. Participants can also have their photo taken in a replica winner's circle and share it with friends through social media.
By participating, fans will have the opportunity to win Belmont Stakes items and also be entered to win one of four prize packages.
Rodnell Workman, NYRA vice president and chief marketing officer, said the Belmont Stakes Fan Festival was an idea that partly stemmed from his experience marketing for the NFL and Madison Square Garden.
“A big part of our promoting the sports and the games was doing fan engagement events, where fans can interact with the brand in different ways, and they've always worked,” said Workman. “It's a great way for fans to touch the product. If they can't get to the sport itself or the game itself, then this is sort of the next best thing. And it makes it fun. It makes it relevant.”
In addition to the interactive games at Grand Central, NYRA is also promoting the Belmont Stakes via Twitter, hosting a sweepstakes called Tweet to the Finish. Entrants can follow @NYRANews from their Twitter accounts and tweet the horse they think will win the Belmont. A randomly selected winner will receive a Belmont Stakes Day Trackside Hospitality package for two including clubhouse seats, trackside parking, and buffet lunch. Second, third and fourth-place finishers will also receive hospitality packages for different dates in June.
“Whether we can promote just awareness for horse racing, we can help sell just a few more tickets, maybe get a few more viewers to watch the NBC broadcast, all the way around we think the event will help us promote awareness and drive excitement for the Belmont Stakes,” Workman said.
During Friday's morning commute, the mini Belmont Park attracted a few looks but passers-by weren't quite what to make of it at first. After a while, though, people started joining in and judging by the smiles and laughter, were having a good time. Workman said that's the way it goes with racing in general. It takes time for people to understand the lure of the sport.
“So many people say, I didn't know. They come to a place like Belmont Park, and they say, I didn't realize it was like this. The park, the experience, the paddock. We need to figure out ways to introduce our sport to casual fans and new fans,” said Workman. “In the long run, we want to become a part of the conversation where someone on a random Saturday says, ‘what do we do today? Do we go to a baseball game? Do we go to Central Park or any park or the movies?' Why shouldn't going to the track be a part of that discussion?”
While this year's Belmont Stakes lacks the potential of a Triple Crown winner, Workman said there's still a lot to work with from a marketing standpoint.
“It's a better opportunity now for us to tell the Belmont story and tell the history of the race and to tell about the great storylines, and the great horses that are being featured, the championship horses. So it's a great opportunity for us to elevate the Belmont Stakes as an event as opposed to just being well, here's the last leg of the Triple Crown and being more about the Triple Crown and less about Belmont.”
Workman said he hopes this year's fan festival will be a precursor to a series of promotions next year. Those events might include a fashion show and a concert tied to the Belmont Stakes.
“The goal long-term is to elevate Belmont Stakes. We want it to be a week-long celebration of horse racing, the Belmont Stakes, and all things NYRA.”
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