Bringing New Fans Back To Track Important To Success

Profile Picture: Ed DeRosa

Ed DeRosa

June 3rd, 2014

Churchill Downs and the Louisville Courier-Journal did a great thing on Saturday when teaming to present a basics of betting seminar geared toward new race fans as part of the track’s Summer n’ Spires Festival that also included food trucks and live music.

Having the seminar in the first place was a good thing, but who it ended up attracting was a great thing because at least half of the people I talked to who were there had never been to the racetrack before.

That means that this event—spearheaded by Turf writer Jennie Rees and the digital marketing team at the Courier-Journal and supported by the Churchill Downs Race Track marketing and communication teams—did something for a dozen or so people that no other event or promotion or race had done before, and that’s pretty cool.

But of course the marketing and outreach can’t stop there, and that latter word in particular—outreach—is very important because every first-time visitor I spoke with wanted his or her hand held.

Now, obviously, that’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy considering the seminar and a chance to mingle with people who do this for a living is what finally brought them to the track in the first place, but my guess is that more first-time visitors than not have trepidation about what everything means and what to do.

So what’s even more important to racing’s survival than getting someone to the track for the first time? Getting them back!

People in the racing and breeding industries—myself included—often say that we do what we do so fervently and with such passion because racing is “in our blood.” That’s very much true but not because we were born into it but because someone put it in there, and one visit is rarely a strong enough dose.

I didn’t become a lifelong fan of racing because my grandfather took me to the track that one time. It happened because he took me many times, and while getting someone to the track is an important first step, it’s with each subsequent visit that racing benefits.

Here are some guidelines I try to follow when engaging new or inexperienced people at the races:

  1. Encourage them to make their own selections, but don’t pressure them into feeling that they have to handicap a race to make a selection. If your kid or buddy wants to play his birthday or her favorite name then that’s OK. If s/he asks what you think of the horse, then even if you hate its chances, come up with a reason for them to stick with their selection. E.g., if it’s an impossible longshot, “I wouldn’t talk anyone off a horse at that price” or “you’ll get paid if you win” works; if it’s a favorite you don’t like, “You’re on the most likely winner, so you have a good chance to cash.”
  2. Having ownership of a bet makes it that much more exciting when it hits. A person is far more likely to bet again (and tell people about the experience) after cashing his/her own ticket than if they had just given me money to bet on their behalf.
  3. Watch the races from the areas where the crowd is loudest. Depending on the track, this might entail watching some races on TV in the grandstand rather than live on the apron. Turfway or Mountaineer in the dead of winter, for example, might have more people huddled around the TVs near the bar than watching on the track. The excitement of cheering a horse home (even if you’re all cheering different horses) is contagious, so make sure to hang out where the action is.
  4. See the horses and jockeys before AND after the race. Going to the paddock is a no brainer, but watching the horses and jockeys come off the track can be just as exciting for new fans who may not have realized how much energy horses and riders expend during a one- or two-minute race. Veins popping and jockeys panting is a great way to show the Sport of Kings is no walk in the park.

Some in the industry have said that racing does too much to attract people who aren’t fans, anyway, and not enough to keep the fans we have, If people aren’t staying, whether for their second or hundredth time, then it’s up to us to bring them back, and the first and second steps are to make them feel welcomed.

Kudos to Jennie Rees for helping us roll out the red carpet.