The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont make up the Triple Crown races each year, something we already know. The first two legs are major events at Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course respectively, while the Belmont, although major, is a bit more reserved. The Derby and the Preakness desires the huge crowd, charges huge prices to sit in the stands and opens up the infield to those bent on partying more than actually watching a stakes race on the turf. The Derby regularly draws 150,000 and the Preakness has seen 121,000 plus. Unfortunately, the rest of the racing calendar at both Churchill and Pimlico leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it can be argued that ignorance is the operative word once these two days are in the books.
Despite its critics, NYRA still has the best race schedule in the land. The three tracks offer more stakes races and races with minimum $100,000 purses than anywhere in the country. Even Aqueduct, in the dead of winter has more stakes races than some tracks do in the summer. NYRA has a new CEO and a new plan and a goal to make a profit without the help of racino slots. They have taken their first major step and they are making Belmont Stakes Day a major, marketing event. On June 7, the Belmont will be run, this time with a $1.5 million purse. The Met Mile, always a Memorial Day event, is now part of the Belmont Stakes undercard. The Brooklyn Handicap, a 1 ½ mile event contested the Friday before, is now part of the undercard. In all, there are 10 stakes races on Belmont Stakes Day, totaling $8 million in purses. Only Breeder’s Cup Saturday is a richer day in the Sport of Kings.
The infield is closed at Belmont Park, so you’ll never see Belmont look like Pimlico, but Big Sandy is a canyon, a mammoth place to watch horse racing. In 2004, there were over 120,000 in attendance to see if Smarty Jones could win the Triple Crown and they all let out a collective gasp as Birdstone edged him at the very end. The major question is whether the addition of these excellent races will bring more people to Belmont Park on June 7. If a Triple Crown is on the line, the numbers will be there, but usually when it isn’t, the crowds are smaller, but still decent. Getting 50,000 plus to come to a race track is impressive. As we know, there are many options and ways to spend one’s hard earned money. It remains to be seen how these major stakes races will appeal to the casual fan. As a fan of the sport, I love it, love the fact that 10 of the races will have horses I know, trainers I know and jockeys I know, but to the average fan, they can make just as much money betting on a claiming race than they can on the Brooklyn Handicap.
We know that the handle will be astronomically bigger. If you have 75,000 or more at the track, they’re going to bet as are those at home or at an OTB parlor. Pimlico makes virtually all of its money on Preakness Day, enough to keep racing alive in Maryland. NYRA certainly doesn’t need to have one big day because unlike Pimlico, they have Saratoga, and although they have to be careful of exploiting the Spa, it does make money for them. What they’re trying to do here is to showcase their other big track, Belmont Park, and with 20 million people hovering in the NYC metro, they should be able to market to a sizable number of them.
The great thing about horse racing is that you can watch races virtually every day. The worst thing about horse racing is that you can watch races virtually every day. In 2014, it’s the big event, the one-off that appeals to Americans. They’ll watch the Kentucky Derby because it’s a staple of Americana, and its one day. We watch the Super Bowl, because it’s one day, and the NFL, still the most popular product succeeds because it plays less games than its competitors. Baseball, basketball and hockey with its 162, 82 and 82 game schedules over six or seven months is really hard to follow and even harder to pay attention to. That’s why soccer continues to surge. They play usually once per week, and that makes for appointment viewing.
NYRA now has four months to market its very own Super Bowl of racing. They need to be aggressive with advertising, hype and the whole nine yards. They need to get on talk radio and let people know the stars of the sport. WFAN is a huge entity in New York, and from 1 to 6:30 Mike Francesa hosts his talk show. He has sports fans in their cars, driving around the metro for hours each weekday. NYRA needs to pay for time, to get on the air and market the hell out of this day so the casual sports fan thinks about heading to Belmont on June 7. Francesa, love him or hate him, has the numbers and he’ll do a good job of leading Martin Panza, NYRA’s Vice President of Racing Operations in an interview. In addition, Francesa likes the sport; he used to own horses himself. A 60 second radio spot won’t be enough. They need to set a target crowd and aggressively go out there and get it. Some might say that talking horse racing will drive off those who tune in for Yankee and Met talk, but it’s amazing that come Kentucky Derby time how many callers call in to discuss the race with Francesa. Believe me; the radio station will take the money to put on a NYRA segment from 3 to 3:30 once a week.
NYRA’s announcement comes at the time when the Olympics are taking place. The Olympics are the recipe to be used here. Be honest, nobody really cares about curling, but they’ll watch it because it’s the Olympics. The Olympics are packaged beautifully—they always have been—because the story is more important than the sport. NYRA needs to get on the air and tell the story. Tell the story of the $75,000 colt going up in the Belmont against the one that cost $2 million. That gets the casual fan involved. They’re going to pick a side, perhaps place a few bucks there and more importantly, either watch on TV or if they can, get to the track on June 7.
Yesterday, NYRA made a bold move; they created an event for June 7. Now, they have four months to create the noise that makes an event just that.