Harness Racing Has Some Good Triggers

May 16, 2015

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By Dean Towers

Back in 1997, executives were pleasantly surprised to see that the worldwide sales of Mars candy bars had spiked rapidly. The bar, which was named after chocolatier Franklin Mars had been produced since 1932, had usually stable sales, and this jump was a head-scratcher. There was no new marketing; no reason at all for the increase. What the executives were missing was a key part of marketing and sales: Triggers.

On July 4th 1997 the spacecraft Pathfinder – after millions of dollars, years of preparation and much publicity – landed on Mars. The public was consumed with the beautiful pictures and the story. That simple trigger resulted in people, somewhere, at sometime, standing in line at a convenience store and deciding to buy a Mars bar. The Mars landing trigger resulted in more sales.

Kentucky Derby Day has turned into an event rather than a race. NBC and Churchill Downs Inc. no longer treat the race as a two-minute piece of Americana. Movie stars (B-List and otherwise) cram the red carpet. Tom Brady, Wes Welker and other athletes join in the festivities. This is not by accident. Thoroughbred racing – for that one day – is triggered as blue-blooded, for the rich and not at all inclusive.

NBC Sports tweeted a picture of private jets parking at the Louisville airport and the comments below the tweet were pretty much what you’d expect.

“That one picture sums up Thoroughbred racing” said one. Others were the same. Thoroughbred racing, on Derby Day, conjures up these feelings and NBC Sports is fine with forwarding them. It helps brand the event as they want to brand it, and more and more people watch. Derby viewership (absent a Triple Crown try) is tops in all of racing, and is one of the most watched days for any sport each year.

Triggers, and delivering on the triggers, are important.

If I had a dollar every time I’ve heard that harness racing needs to have telecasts like the Kentucky Derby pre-game show I’d have enough for a pretty huge pick 4 ticket. Harness racing is not Thoroughbred racing, however, and for it, the most successful way to market it comes from its triggers.

Why do harness fans flock to the Jug in big numbers each year? Is it because central Ohio has the world’s best restaurants? Is it because TV stars go? Does Tom Brady hop a jet, land in Ohio for the Thursday event, and fly back in time for Patriots practice to deflate a few footballs? Clearly not. The Little Brown Jug works and continues to work because it is 100% pure, driven, harness racing.

What in heaven’s name drives horsemen to truck all the way to Charlottetown, PEI for the Gold Cup and Saucer, anyway? Why do fans look forward to it each year? It can’t be the purse or the quality of the race, it’s only $60,000. It can’t be for the museums or Broadway plays. Why is it such a huge event? Again, it’s harness racing.

Harness racing is small town. It’s Midwestern-type values. It’s a wake at dawn, kick back at lunch with a sandwich crowd. It rewards and respects a day’s hard work for a day’s pay. The biggest celebrity we’ll see at the Jug or on Gold Cup and Saucer day (minus Heather Vitale, of course) is a lady who won the homemade jam contest and 4H Club category winners. Harness racing and the Jug or the Gold Cup and Saucer is not like, nor will it ever be like the Kentucky Derby.

Harness racing needs to be cognizant of its triggers. When selling to potential sponsors there’s no use calling Netjets, Grey Goose vodka or Godiva chocolates. Fazoli’s, Budweiser and Ford are more than fine. When showing the races there’s little need to find celebrities and hoodwink anyone. Interviewing a lady from suburban Harrisburg and asking her who she likes in the fourth is probably the way to go. While after the Kentucky Derby a former Governor or captain of industry gets interviewed about their winning charge, in harness you’re probably asking Phil or Susan, a couple of people who took a shot at a $14,000 yearling with friends, the questions.

All of those are positive harness racing triggers. It’s who the sport is. It’s an asset to run to it and a mistake to run away from it.

Triggers cannot only be used by marketing departments to brand the sport correctly, they can also be used to help a track get noticed in other ways.

Western Fair in London, Ontario has been growing their handle and brand a little bit of late. We’ve mentioned in this column how $700,000 handles have been reached this year. For a small track half-mile track which rarely broke $200,000 in handle five years ago, it’s pretty impressive. Greg Blanchard and the team have done things a little differently and an example of that is the Super High Five.

Last week, after a small carryover, the (15% takeout; much lower than their other bets) Super High Five pool in race seven was $55,000. The win pool the same race was $2,637. The Super High Five at Western Fair has been, and is being branded. The regular pools are some of the highest on the card, and if there’s a carryover – no matter how small – fans and bettors flock to get a piece. This little track in London is getting known throughout harness racing in North America as the place to play 20 cent Super High Five tickets. That’s beginning to look like their trigger.

Balmoral Park is another example of a positive trigger. Years ago the Chicago area oval cut takeout on their pick 4 bet to 15% from 25% and began a long journey of promoting this “Pick 4-Balmoral-harness racing” link. After starting very slowly the pick 4 pools grew from $5,000 or $6,000, to $8,000, then a few years later to over $20,000 per night. We’ve seen a 400% increase in a bet, and it comes from, me, you or anyone else seeing a Balmoral pick 4 upcoming on a simo screen, and getting a positive trigger. We know we’ll probably get value and pool size for that bet so we bet. In 2015 it’s something to play, while in 2010 it was something we ignored.

Does your track have a quality or bet that offers wagering value? Do you own something that others do not to make it stand out? Are you in marketing in harness racing and have to create a new plan to entice people to come to the track? Remember to ask yourself about its trigger. If it fits with the overall harness racing brand, you’re probably already half way there.

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