Amidst all the gloom and doom in American racing today (and I don't see any need to repeat all the problems here), there are some good things going on, some positive ideas being generated and programs launched at several tracks across the country. Several of those ideas recognize the power of the online community. Some initiatives are geared toward providing information or entertainment for veteran horseplayers while others are designed to market the sport to newcomers.
The New York Racing Association has embraced online video through one of the world's most popular websites, YouTube.com (currently ranked third behind Yahoo and Google in traffic). NYRA isn't the first racing organization to develop its own video channel at YouTube (Churchill Downs, for example, has both a corporate channel for viewing replays from its tracks along with a Kentucky Derby channel), but the in-house television crew for the New York tracks is producing some outstanding new content for the NYRA YouTube channel that can be entertaining or truly informative.
The best example of that is a relatively new program called “Trips & Traps,” hosted by morning linemaker Eric Donovan and in-house television handicapper Andy Serling. The professionally produced weekly show, launched in September, can help anyone looking for an edge in their betting but is especially useful for fans who are interested in learning how to watch a horse race. It focuses on problem trips that horses invariably encounter in a race, either due to bad luck, inexperience or questionable judgment by jockeys. Ultimately, Donovan and Serling provide horses to watch when they return in their next starts that might be worth a bet. They also point out the “traps” that horseplayers might want to avoid with some horses whose troubled trips could result in them being overbet next out.
Serling had a previous stint years ago on NYRA's in-house simulcast show and was hired full-time by the association last year. A serious horseplayer who was never afraid to express his opinions – positive or negative – about racing in general and NYRA in particular, Serling is enthusiastic about expanding NYRA's online video presence. “It's a very cheap way to promote the sport,” he said, “and it gives us an opportunity to give something back to the fans. I know that sounds corny, but it's true. We're trying to teach people and offer some insights. We've gotten great, great feedback so far.”
NYRA's television department has also filled its YouTube channel with stakes races from the past and present and some offbeat biographical features on jockeys called “Jockey Video Cards.” A good example of the style and content is the video profile of apprentice Jackie Davis, daughter of retired jockey Robbie Davis.
'SHOWVIVOR' AND SIEGEL AT SANTA ANITA
Santa Anita Park is fortunate to have the creative marketing talents of Allen Gutterman and a talented in-house television team that is part of HRTV, co-owned by parent company Magna Entertainment and Churchill Downs Inc.
The Southern California track introduced “Free Fridays” this year, a promotion that includes free general admission, $1 drinks and snacks and free box seats while they last. The early returns were favorable.
Gutterman is using Santa Anita's website in a number of ways, including the return this Saturday of “Showvivor,” a popular online contest modeled very loosely after reality television shows such as “Survivor.” In a nutshell, “Showvivor” is a show parlay that challenges participants to be the last person standing after making one selection to finish in the top three each racing day. Click here for details.
Rather than putting extensive videos on Youtube, Santa Anita is adding content from HRTV onto its own site, using Jeff Siegel, a well-known Southern California horse owner and longtime public handicapper, as the centerpiece. Siegel's Selections are available every racing day and on other days he can be seen on video previewing the week ahead, in addition to reviewing stakes races and highlighting potential future stars.
Other tracks are putting more and more content online, too. Churchill Downs recently revamped its Kentucky Derby website, adding fresh video, Derby contender profile and rankings, and news.
TURFWAY'S CHEAP DATES REVERSE TRENDS
Lost in the deluge of recent negative industry trends, including a steep decline in 2008 national pari-mutuel handle, was the news that Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky actually had a minor increase in daily average pari-mutuel handle – both on and off track during its holiday meeting. Turfway may not have the resources of NYRA or Santa Anita, but its marketing team, like those at many other tracks, have discovered the benefits of viral marketing through the online community Facebook.com or MySpace.com.Turfway has built a large following of Facebook and MySpace “friends” and regularly sends reminders to them about special promotions and discounts at the track, where admission and parking is already free.
The gains were minimal (on-track betting was up 0.3% and all sources handle rose 1.8%), but we'll take any good news we can find. Track president Bob Elliston said several factors helped Turfway Park hold its own, including an average field size of 10.4 horses per race (up slightly from the previous year).
For the last couple of years, Turfway has offered a promotion called “Dollar Friday,” featuring live music and $1 beers, hot dogs and bets. Cincinnati magazine, in its “best of the city” annual edition, rated Turfway's Dollar Friday as the “best cheap date” in the area. “That puts us in the mainstream,” Elliston said, “particularly at a time when consumers are looking for value and affordability. We may have reached a tipping point through word of mouth on our Dollar Fridays. We're seeing it continue to grow and grow. On the handle side, the per capita isn't the same on those nights, but people are participating at the windows and the concession stand. And we made a conscious decision to explore the social networking avenues like Facebook and MySpace.”
Though there are major industry challenges these promotional or online marketing efforts cannot address, they can't do any harm, either, and the sense is that the more that's done in these areas, the more racetrack marketing people will learn how to use these new cost-efficient tools.
I'm sure there are many other tracks using their websites or online social networking to effectively promote racing. Use the comment section below to let us know about some of the other good ideas and promotions that are taking place across the country.
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