With California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid, horse racing has been given the marketing opportunity of a lifetime.
Saturday’s Belmont Stakes has been 36 years in the making. Eleven other horses destined for racing immortality have walked to the Belmont starting gates since Affirmed’s Triple Crown romp in 1978. All 11 have failed.
Lone Star Park trainer Jack Van Berg understands the pressures California Chrome and his connections are facing. In 1987, Van Berg’s Alysheba was one of those 11 who failed to capture racing’s final jewel, finishing a distant fourth to Bet Twice, a horse he had soundly beaten just weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
“We ran out of luck,” said the Hall of Fame trainer, who turns 78 on Saturday. “Chrome is a very good horse. He’s had two really lucky races so far, but he’s bound to have bad luck at some point.”
Belmont Park, it seems, is the graveyard for Triple Crown hopes.
When racing outsiders Martin Perry and Steve Coburn bred their $8,000 mare to Lucky Pulpit, a California-bred stallion with a modest $2,500 stud fee, the pair had little reason to think the offspring, a little chestnut foal with a white blaze and an amiable personality, would be little more than a mid-level racehorse.
California Chrome is a once-in-a-generation horse with a story Hollywood couldn’t even make up. The kind of catalyst the horse racing industry has been seeking. An industry that has been in decline for more than two decades.
One of the biggest hurdles for any track is simply getting new fans to come out to the races. Once a person has spent some time at a track, eating the food, watching the horses, betting on a few races, the odds are in the track’s favor that the fan will come back again. Repeat customers are the foundation of any successful business.
So, it would seem, given the gift-wrapped marketing opportunity that is California Chrome, in the days leading up to the big race, tracks across the country would put on an all-out marketing blitz in effort to draw their largest crowds of the season.
That includes Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie.
“Belmont Stakes Day is always a big event day,” said Kim Bordano, Lone Star Park’s marketing director. “But when there is an opportunity for a horse to make history by taking the Triple Crown, we always see one of the biggest crowds of the season turn out.”
On Belmont Day in 2004 and 2008, the last two years a Triple Crown has been on the line, Lone Star Park saw a 59.2 percent average increase in attendance and a cool combined on/off track handle increase of nearly $1.2 million.
Lone Star Park is averaging 6,940 fans per racing day this year.
“There is no better place to watch a race than the racetrack,” Van Berg said. “If you come to the track you’ve got all the excitement from all the people hootin’ and hollerin’ and you have the other live races to watch. It’s where the excitement is. There’s nothing more beautiful than a bunch of horses out on the racetrack coming down the stretch.”
In lieu of the expected increase in turnout, Lone Star Park decided to move the start time of its 11-race card for the first live race up to 1:35 p.m. so as not to interfere with the Belmont simulcast. They have also contracted additional experienced mutuel clerks who have worked at Lone Star Park in the past to supplement the current staff.
“Advancing the start of the first [race] also gives us the opportunity to add some additional time between the races, anticipating a higher volume of activity at the mutuel windows,” Bordano said.
The track has made its appeal to fans via radio spots and social media, hoping their efforts reward them with the year’s biggest turnout.
As for marketing, that’s about as far as the track can go.
Because of the fractured nature of racing industry leadership and the lack of a universal governing body, states have been left to regulate, promote and maintain order over a rudderless industry. Without a universal marketing plan like most other sports such as the NFL, NBA and NASCAR, individual tracks are left to promote the sport’s biggest race of the last decade on their own.
Imagine the Super Bowl only being promoted by the venue itself.
Other tracks across the country have taken a similarly modest approach.
On Remington Park’s website, race fans are greeted with a huge banner ad advertising their on-site casino hours. One has to scroll down the page to find any mention of Saturday’s big race. Once clicked, fans are invited to watch the simulcast from the Chrome Zone, a tent that features a few TV monitors and live DJ entertainment.
Other track websites fail to mention the race at all.
Churchill Downs and Santa Anita Park, two tracks at which California Chrome has won Derby races, manage to promote the race a little more aggressively. The first 10,000 fans at Santa Anita will be given a California Chrome Belmont button and complimentary “Chrome” nasal strip in honor of “Nasalgate,” as it has become known in the industry. Both promote the race as the marquee weekend event and plan to simulcast the race on their video boards.
Everyone but the industry itself, it seems, is attempting to leverage the big red horse’s success to their benefit.
After his famous son’s win at the San Felipe Stakes on March 8, Lucky Pulpit saw his stud fee increase to $10,000, a figure that could easily quadruple if California Chrome can get this last leg.
Shoe company Skechers swooped in at the last minute and signed a deal to be the featured brand of the horse’s handlers, requiring everyone from Califronia Chrome’s hot-walker to the owners to wear Skechers branding from the barn to the winner’s circle.
Corporate America won’t miss its piece of the pie.
Even if California Chrome wins in Secretariat-esque style, pulling away from his rivals like a locomotive unhinged, horse racing will not suddenly become the NFL.
But the industry needs this. Fans are drawn to stories of greatness, once in a generation kind of sporting feats.
If California Chrome wins, fans for years to come will tell their story of where they were and what they saw the day that the big red horse of their generation captivated the nation.
But this alone will not save racing.
“I’ll be honest with you, racing has shot themselves in the foot for all these years,” Van Berg said. “They were the only game in town and they thought they didn’t have to [promote themselves]. Just look at what the PBR bull riding and NASCAR have done. Their marketing departments have done a heck of a job, and I hope racing is waking up to that fact.”
Until the Breeders’ Cup, NTRA and racing’s “elite” blue bloods lower their guard and unite to form some sort of central leadership figurehead that can implement an overarching set of rules and marketing guidelines, the sport will continue its death march. After a brief bump in interest, the sport will continue its downward spiral into the depths of sporting relevance.
According to California Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman, his horse has been training “like a monster.”
California Chrome knows none of this, though. He’s just a horse who loves to run.
And maybe, in spite of the industry’s lack of foresight, just maybe a horse for all time.
Getting a handle on it
Here’s a look at how Lone Star Park has performed on Belmont Stakes days. Triple Crown threat days are noted:
|Year||Attendance||Off track||On Track|
|2008*||14,914||$1,947,355||(Big Brown) $2,573,836|
|2004*||18,278||$2,414,000||(Smarty Jones) $3,144,103|
*Years when Triple Crown was on the line **I’ll Have Another scratched morning of race
Source: Lone Star Park