I wrote an article a few weeks ago for the Thoroughbred Daily News (click here to read). The tome focused on the sport of thoroughbred racing’s continual wish for great horses that capture the imagination and interest of the public; horses such as American Pharoah, California Chrome and Zenyatta. The problem, of course, is the sport of thoroughbred racing doesn’t have these horses to promote very often. Horses race infrequently, are retired early; the Zenyattas and Chromes are diamonds in the rough.
To combat the dearth of star power, the sport has tended to focus on big days and big events. I believe that’s the only path forward for them, and it makes a lot of sense. Despite the fact harness racing has a lot of star horses, I’d submit event marketing is as important for this sport, as well.
Why? Beyond the obvious, I believe events matter for three reasons:
1. When your track creates and brands an event, the event can feed itself and break new ground with partnerships and new revenue streams. These experiments can be honed and expanded year after year, and the brand, and the event, can grow. Best practices are discovered, and long-term revenue rises.
2. Politicians are watching. I have had more than one conversation with political types who saw a successful horse racing event in his or her town or city, where he/she beamed that their vote for slot money was a smart one. Slots in some states are a livelihood and harness racing depends on this money for survival. This always needs to be kept in mind.
3. In the simulcast world, compelling events provide an opportunity to introduce, or reintroduce your racetrack to bettors. The “lifetime value” of a bettor who decides to play your venue again can result in thousands of dollars in revenue.
In the “big event” vein, how did Yonkers do with the International Trot card yesterday? I’ll share my opinion with a few letter grades.
Promotion – Grade “B+”
This is something harness racing is getting better at, and Yonkers is no exception. This week, I saw seeded articles and press releases that were used by local newspapers. Social media was talking about the event. Even some overseas fans had the buzz. I was pleasantly surprised.
TV Production, Race Presentation – Grade “A+”
I must admit, I have not watched Yonkers a lot the past while, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to, but I thought the simulcast show was fabulous. I’m a sucker for a couple of fellas (or gals) chatting harness racing, and the Yonkers crew did not disappoint. It was fun and informative.
As for the presentation of the races, Yonkers, in my view, did the impossible. They added camera angles, a drone shot, and seamlessly made it all work. Traditional race-watchers often complain when the regular pan shot is messed with, but I don’t know anyone who complained about how Yonkers spiced up the in-race coverage. In fact, most people I spoke with gave them praise. Well done, Yonkers!
The International Trot Itself – Grade “C”
There’s no use sugar-coating it, the race was a dud. Half-mile track racing is difficult to make exciting oftentimes, but when Hannelore Hanover broke, the chalk made the lead, and the outside flow was stuck in a bog, the race simply couldn’t deliver.
Attendance – Grade “B+”
Question: What’s easier, getting people out to a harness track in the afternoon (when it’s not Little Brown Jug or Hambletonian Day) or splitting an atom with a butter knife?
There is nothing more depressing as a fan of harness racing than seeing a couple million of purses on a card, great horses, great drivers, and a beautiful sunny day, where you can fire a cannonball down the tarmac and not hit a soul. Yonkers did fairly well today on the attendance front. There were people enjoying the day.
The Handle – Grade “A-”
You might look at the total handle and think I’m crazy for this grade, but hear me out. Yonkers didn’t just distribute money and hope, they worked at it, and the result was a big improvement from their average daily handle.
With comingling from Europe, the win and show pools were tremendous.
$82,000 was in the win pool for the International itself. For comparison, Woodbine Entertainment – a track(s) who generally has 400 per cent higher handle than Yonkers – did about $50,000 in the win pool for their last big trot, the Canadian Trotting Classic. The win, place and show pools for the Trot were not that far off what (arguably) the world’s greatest pacing race, the North America Cup achieved, and that race was in the evening, on national television in Canada.
Running trots during the day and attracting betting dollars is difficult. Yonkers, in my view, showed some imagination, and from a position of weakness, did well.
The Card – Grade “B”
No, this was not the quality of a Hambletonian card, but the International had a really cool field. Bee A Magician made her fall debut (a winning one), and yes, one of the most popular horses in harness racing the past 10 years – Wiggle It Jiggleit – made an appearance.
Overall, I didn’t think I’d particularly enjoy wagering and watching the card. It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, I don’t watch a lot of racing at Yonkers as a rule, and international racing doesn’t really thrill me. I expected I might just watch the International, and maybe Wiggle it on replay. But I tuned in early, and the more I watched, the more I liked.
Let’s hope Yonkers learns something from putting on a card like this, improves it and draws more and more eyeballs and interest. Politicians are watching, and so are potential fans and bettors, both here and overseas.
Events are important for harness racing, and today’s festivities, in my opinion, delivered.