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Can horse racing return to relevance?
For Kentucky Derby week, the Innovation Trail is partnering with WEKU and Louisville Public Media to explore how technology is changing the horse racing industry. This is part two of a five-part series.
It’s early April in Lexington, Ky. and there’s not a cloud in the sky on opening day at Keeneland Race Course.
Stands are packed with young and enthusiastic fans in this park-like setting in the heart of thoroughbred breeding country.
But this isn’t the reality for most of the sport.
“The headline is very sobering,” says Jason Wilson, vice president of business development at the Jockey Club. “We’re losing about four percent of our fan base each year.”
Wilson’s job is to stop that loss and revive the fan base. It won’t be easy.
“Even our core fans are not extremely enthusiastic about the sport,” Wilson says. “If you look at the numbers, 46 percent of our core fans would not recommend the sport to another person.”
Those core fans say betting systems are out of date, too few horses race and betting facilities are often rundown.
Racing ignored or disdained many of the technological disruptions that changed American sports - and society.
Baseball, football and basketball took to television, but racing wanted to keep fans - and their wagers - at the track itself. It was a disastrous strategy: Last year both pro bowling and poker had more national television time than horse racing.
When tracks finally did expand their reach by simulcasting races to other tracks and off-track betting sites, they made some pretty bad deals.
“We’re giving away our product,” says Rogers Beasley, Keeneland’s director of racing. “It’s not something the NBA or the NFL would ever have countenanced and we have let it run amuck.”
The result, Beasley says, is less money to invest in fan-friendly facilities and technology. Keeneland, a not-for-profit with revenue from its huge thoroughbred sales operation, is not the norm.
“We at Keeneland have been blessed because we always had a nice facility and have constantly put money back into the facility,” Beasley says. “That has not been true of 90 percent of racetracks across America.”
One of the fans on opening day is Chase Sawyer, a college freshman. He’s there, as he says, “winning some money on some horse races.”
Sawyer said he planned to visit several times during the 15-day meet. Last fall Keeneland was the first track in the United States to introduce smartphone betting, and Sawyer loves that idea.
“I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Sawyer says. “I was like, Why wait in line when you can just bet on a phone?”
Wilson, at the Jockey Club, wants to leverage young fans like Sawyer with a fantasy racing game launching this month. Players will pick their horses in real races run each week, and be rewarded for spreading the word.
“The way that you gain points in order to make your, quote-unquote, bets is you do a lot of social media activities,” says Wilson. “You’ll tweet about a story, or you’ll go to a Facebook page, or you’ll watch a video. So it’s really kind of following [young people] where they congregate and making sure we’re part of their dialog.”
It remains to be seen if more tracks will join Keeneland and the Jockey Club or if racing will, once again, according to Wilson, let the world pass it by.
“There’s certainly a future for racing,” Wilson says. “Whether that future is niche or that future is mass media is really kind of up to us to embrace.”
How the horse racing industry embraces that future will determine whether future sports fans see Chase Sawyer’s money-winning day at the track as an oddity or as common as watching a football game.