Equibase, the Thoroughbred industry's official database, recently announced that Keeneland president Nick Nicholson was elected chairman of the board, and will replace recently retired Jockey Club president Alan Marzelli at the end of the year.
That's good news, as far as I am concerned. Marzelli was successful in growing the business side of both Equibase and the Jockey Club—which co-owns Equibase in partnership with member tracks of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations. In my opinion, that business success came at the expense of Equibase fulfilling its original mission when it was created 20 years ago to help expand racing's fan base.
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Unlike all other sports, which makes its data readily available to fans at no cost, racing's statistics have been tightly controlled by Equibase. The company has forced people interested in getting such simple things as trainer or jockey statistics, or past performances for horses, to buy them, either from Equibase or from affiliates like Jockey Club Information Systems, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Jockey Club.
There has been some movement by Equibase to offer more free information to racing fans and industry professionals, such as the recently unveiled “stats central,” and I am happy to see someone there finally “gets it.” I also understand that collection and storage of the large volume of racing data does not come without a cost. But while the Jockey Club and TRA tracks have been making millions of dollars in dividends, the industry's formidable challenge of attracting new fans has suffered.
This movement toward a more fan-friendly Equibase is long overdue, and the company still has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to be compared with other major sports.
Nicholson oversees one of the few North American racetracks that is able to say it attracts a large number of potential new racing fans and horseplayers. Under his watch, Keeneland has embraced safety issues that are paramount to this younger demographic, but it also has tried to make it easier for those neophytes to understand the game. Things like the Trakus system–which automatically tracks horses during a race and provides innovative graphics and interesting, new statistics—have succeeded. For example, Trakus will tell you exactly how far a horse traveled in a race, because it is able to measure where the runner is in relationship to the rail. It can provide specific margins at the various points of call of a race (Equibase continues to track margins through a chartcaller watching the race with bincoculars and estimated margins) and give fractional and final times for each horse in a race (conventional charting only records the leader at each point of call, and handicappers are forced to estimate the other horses' times by using the age-old one-fifth of a second equaling one length method).
Perhaps Nicholson will be able to drag other tracks into the 21st century using Trakus or similar technology. Maybe he will encourage Equibase management to develop new statistical and handicapping graphics making it easier for a newcomer to graduate from confused novice to interested horseplayer.
Equibase is moving in the right direction. Nicholson used to be a Jockey Club executive, so he know that the organization sometimes moves with the speed of a glacier. Other sports are moving at lightning speed in attracting and embracing newcomers. Racing's old ways won't work. Let's hope Nicholson is the right man for this critically important job.
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