I like horse racing. I’m not an diehard who reads The Daily Racing Form or goes to the data available at Equibase.com every day, but I think the excitement value provided by a horse race is as good as any in sports. One of the things I appreciate the most of my three years working for a sports handicapping company is that we were immersed in horse stuff each day and it was a crash course in understanding the names and concepts associated with this sport. And it’s for that reason that I find the inability of the horse racing community as a whole to market itself properly to be highly frustrating.
The Preakness Stakes runs tomorrow at my old stomping grounds in Baltimore. There’s excitement in the air, as there always is, with Justify aiming to get one step closer to a Triple Crown. It’s something that draws even casual sports fans in, and makes sports fans like me—who are primarily baseball, football, basketball and hockey—get our juices stirred. The horses are all at the start of their careers, three-years-old.
In short, the Triple Crown is a marketer’s dream—it pulls an expanded number of viewers in right at the point where the stars—the horses—are just getting started. It would be like if one of the major team sports had an All-Rookie League that people actually cared about and were willing to watch and wager on.
And after the Belmont Stakes in three weeks, we won’t hear from any of these horses again. It would be like the NBA giving us a taste of Jayson Tatum and Ben Simmons during these playoffs and then suddenly yanking them away from the spotlight, to spend the rest of their careers in obscurity.
Most of the horses still run well after their three-year-old season, but no one pays attention anymore. The reason is the disorganized, fractured nature of horse racing itself.
You have tracks scattered across the country—the major circuits are in New York, SoCal and Florida, each with 2-3 tracks that take turns being in season. There’s also popular tracks in Chicagoland, Delaware, Arkansas, Louisiana and of course Kentucky, that draw the attention of bettors. But there’s no organization and context.
It’s structure and narrative that make sports compelling. If college football were set up like horse racing, we might have the same conferences, but teams would play each other on a completely random basis, with no rivalries and no end point of a championship, either regional or national to shoot for. Who, other than the biggest diehards and hard-core gambling degenerates, are going to tune into a game that has no bigger purpose beyond being a wagering spectacle?
Why can’t we have some sort of National Horse Racing Commission, that would bring all the tracks under the same umbrella and set up true championship races. Using the structure of college athletics as a model, organize races for regional championships at the major circuits, all pointing to qualifying for a national championship race. The Breeders Cup is already in place to serve this role, but it lacks the building narrative necessary to make it compelling. It would be like college basketball pulling Villanova and Michigan out of thin air and telling us “this is for the championship. Watch.”
Horse racing junkies may read this and want to point out that there is a qualifying system for the Triple Crown races and the Breeders Cup. That’s true, but it isn’t well-organized with a clear structure that anyone outside a diehard can follow.
The Supreme Court decision this week striking down federal anti-gambling laws and paving the way for states to legalize sports betting is going to have far-reaching impact. One of those is that people whose primary interest is to bet football, will also come into contact with horse racing betting opportunities. Wouldn’t it be a boon for racing to be able to attract those fans with the same kind of raw passion that college football does? If you think that’s unrealistic, watch any woman swoon over how beautiful a horse is and then tell me there’s no market for national branding and fandom over an extended period of time.
And if my vision of regional and national championship races are too much, how about the horse racing community at least get organized enough to have something like a Friday Night Pick-6 of the week. It could be televised—NBC Sports Network might well be interested. Schedule it in prime-time and build it up all week long. Sports bars could organize pools and again, people just casually out for a drink on a Friday night, could bet and be interested.
The opportunities are there for horse racing to have huge mass appeal. I know that right now these horses make their owners money by being put out to stud. But that’s because they disappear from the national stage after a quick burst in their rookie year. Start using the Triple Crown period as a time to introduce people to new horses, let them build brands and watch the sport take off.