by Dean Towers
You may have noticed a trend recently in thoroughbred horse racing – a focus on “Big Days”. Whether it’s the Florida Derby or Arkansas Derby during the three-year-old prep season, Haskell Day or the Arlington Million, thoroughbred racetracks are going all out promoting their big events.
Perhaps the most recent and prevalent example of this phenomenon is the New York Racing Association’s (NYRA) strategy with Belmont Stakes day itself.
Before 2013, NYRA depended a great deal on a horse winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown for their on-track and off-track betting business come Belmont Day. A Triple Crown try was obviously ready-made for large handle and attendance. However, when the racing Gods were against them and there was no Triple Crown on the line, they felt they needed a contingency plan. So they created a stakes-filled card with big events from top to bottom. NYRA even moved the historical and ever-popular Met Mile from Memorial Day to Belmont Stakes day.
That wasn’t all: NYRA spent more and more marketing money on the event, they added post-race concerts, more food choice and capped attendance, hoping their customers had a better customer experience, and wanted to come back next year.
Although the jury is still out, it seems the plan is working.
Handle on Belmont Day in 2000 (with no Triple Crown on the line) was $50.1 million. Last weekend, again with no Triple Crown try, the handle was $99.3 million.
The brand building of the day has been improving rapidly as well. For example, from 2000-2010, the Belmont card averaged about 55 per cent of the entire day’s North American horse racing handle. In 2014, almost three of every four dollars wagered on the continent, did so on races at Belmont racetrack.
The benefits of such are numerous.
First, more wagering equals more revenue. In addition to that, the growth of wagering also allows NYRA to increase the price of their signal for Belmont Day, giving them a bigger slice of the wagering pie. Second, prices for admission, parking etc, have increased, and (so far) patrons have been willing to pay, increasing the revenue per customer. Third, when horse owners see a great day of racing, they want to be a part of it. You’re seeing more horses, more shippers and more owners want to fill the box come Belmont Day. Some horses are even coming from overseas for the turf stakes.
One other effect that is less apparent on the surface, but very important, is that promoting a big day introduces new people to the sport. These new people are potential clients who have never really looked at you, who can be encouraged to purchase past performances, handicapping information, and who may sign up for your Internet wagering product, or just become a general fan who may come back. It’s simply modern ‘big day’ lead generation.
Director of marketing for Brisnet, Ed DeRosa, relays just how important some of big days have been for introducing new entrants into Churchill Downs Inc.’s offerings.
“The core fan certainly responds to bigger days — more stakes, higher purses, etc. — but when it comes to your question of ‘landing new customers,’ the Kentucky Derby is queen and a Triple Crown try her prince,” he said via email.
This season without a Triple Crown try, there were fewer eyeballs on the product, which hinders lead generation.
“The Belmont Stakes day card was spectacular with performances to match, but there’s no question we’d have had more sign ups or unique users if Nyquist had been going for the Triple Crown as an undefeated champion,” DeRosa said.
Eyeballs are important, and headline events draw them.
In Ontario, there’s one other huge benefit to having all oars in the water for a big North America Cup night. As most know, the sport in the province is subsidized to the tune of about $100 million per year. Politicians and others who control the purse strings want to see the money used, without looking too far from the end of their noses. Commercials, the race on network television, promotion, 10,000 fans having fun, stakes races, star horses, and star drivers, all means something.
This is why, in part, this week you’ve seen or will see:
- A post draw with a popular athlete
- YouTube promotion, like this.
- 15 races, with 150 entries, with $2.7 million in purses, including the Goodtimes, Roses Are Red, Armbro Flight, Gold Cup (featuring Always B Miki) and of course, the $1 million North America Cup
- Food trucks and rib cook offs, bands and face painting and just about everything else to help 8,000 or 10,000 or so have a good time between the races
- An “Official Drink of the North America Cup”
- Live TV coverage, which culminates a week of all-out push marketing on radio and television
- Corporate sponsors such as Pepsi
- A “big night”, big race feel from top to bottom
- Big handles
No, it was not like this, even five years ago. The business strategy has evolved.
Woodbine has one more ace up their sleeve, and they’re using it.
The huge Jackpot Hi-5 carryover that’s approaching $500,000 will have a mandatory payout in the last race of the evening on Cup night. Back in October of last year, the last race of the 2015 Breeders Crown card was used for a mandatory payout on the high five and patrons wagered over $1.6 million into the bet. This helped fuel a Canadian handle record for the night’s races, with over $5.7 million wagered on the Breeders Crown card.
By going all out on this night, yes the organization hopes to attract betting handle and sell more beer and soda and hot dogs, but it’s much more than that. They’re hoping politicians and others tune in to watch, happy with the way the money is being used; they’re hoping horse owners like you watch and say “we have to stake something next year for Cup night, it looks like a blast”; they’re hoping new fans show up and sign up for their Internet betting arm; they’re hoping you tweet about it, talk about it, and help it become a bigger night in five years, than it is this year.
It’s a strategy for horse racing that has legs, and in the short-term at least, it’s not going anywhere.