Making a career out of a life in the horse racing industry has never been easy. The hours are long and hard, and there’s a constant flow of issues and concerns that need to be addressed. Lately however, there’s been a new shift, a new underlying concern that seems to haunt the day to day life of the horsemen – the future of the horse racing industry in Alberta.
Inviting people to spend an afternoon or evening at the horse races has always been a bit of a challenge;
“That just doesn’t sound like it would be any fun.”
“There’s horse racing in Alberta?”
Well, sports fans, for less than the cost of a beer at Rogers Place you can enjoy an entire series of races composed of high performance athletes travelling faster than McDavid can skate. And you can still get a beer! The concept is super simple – first one to the finish line wins - and if your ‘team’ loses, it doesn’t matter because the next race is in 20 minutes! Working as a team in this sport is important as it requires not only athleticism but strategy as well. It is a 24/7/365 commitment from every trainer, groom, driver and horsemen to keep every player in top form. Oh, and the teams consist of one person and a 1000 lbs athlete with four legs and an attitude.
In short, yes, there’s horse racing in Alberta.
This begs the question; why is it, on a beautiful Friday night, the crowd is made up of only 30 or so people, the majority over the age of 55? Why am I the sole representative of a key demographic? A demographic that is defined by their minimal responsibility, and maximum freedom. A demographic that regularly goes out on the weekends to spend our disposable income on taking in sporting events, concerts, or a few drinks with friends? This group is already accustomed to regularly spending $80-250+ per seat at a Hockey game or per ticket at a concert. Watching the races is free and the beer is considerably more affordable.
So where are they?
They’re around. But they’re at the hockey game, or at a new store opening they saw on Instagram, or watching that band they found on Youtube play for the first time, or at that event they were invited to on Facebook. They’re here. But they aren’t at the races. Why?
Because they don’t know. They don’t know what racing is. They don’t know it’s happening. They don’t know why it would be any fun. They don’t know why they should give it any value. They literally don’t know.
Looking at other regions around North America, there’s a strong effort taking place to connect with this core demographic and garner that interest in the industry and create that value. For example, the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association in Philadelphia recently signed into a partnership with the NHL. This new partnership creates advertising for The Meadows Racing to not only everyone attending hockey games at the PPG Paints Arena, but to everyone across North America who tunes in to watch those games. It was recognized that new fans were needed, and that pairing with the NHL was an excellent way to expand their horizons. Similarly, many racetracks have started posting on various platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook, to not only celebrate the winners of stake races, but to promote the stakes races ahead of time alongside other events.
But upon looking back at the industry here in Alberta, the efforts being made by other regions, racetracks, and associations aren’t even close to being matched. That drive and that passion to dig deep, hustle and try new things, bring in new fans, expand the audience – just doesn’t seem to really exist here. Any effort that is made seems to be more out of obligation than genuine desire to promote the sport and the industry. Without this push to grow the exciting world of horse racing by finding new audiences and viable methods of marketing and really build that fanatical following that can really make the industry thrive and flourish – can we actually expect the industry to survive?
Most are quick to point at the new track being built by the Edmonton International Airport as a solution for many of the problems faced by the industry. It promises a full mile track that can host both Standardbred & Thoroughbred racing, and is in a prime location close to major roadways, the airport, a golf course, and a brand new shopping center. A new track promises new hope, but without being able to create that marketability essential to sell the product is it really going to be the Hail Mary this industry has been searching for?
Admittedly, there have been a number of excellent efforts made by the team at Century Downs (on various platforms) but these efforts remain to be unsupported by other groups within the horse racing industry itself. But that’s not entirely their fault either when representatives from Horse Racing Alberta etc have to be granted permission by the facilities and other associations in order to be allowed to promotehorse racing on their property. That is, in order to provide some semblance of marketing that everyone involved could only ever benefit from. (Century Downs Youtube Channel)
Okay, so who’s responsible? The governing bodies say it’s all up to the racetracks. The racetracks disagree. But right now, considering all parties involved rely on this industry as their primary source of income - why would they not do everything within their power to support the race industry, and to access and bring in those demographics and that new untapped audience. There always seems to be a constant passing of blame as to whose responsibility it is, with few people actually bothering to try and find a solution or compromise. Those within the industry who do try to provide that promotion, education, and that voice for horse racing are unfortunately drowned out by the massive amount of misinformation being made available by those unfamiliar with the industry who just want a soap box to stand on.
This is paired with surprising apathy from the governing bodies when it comes to issues within the industry. They seem more than comfortable with letting things sort themselves out, than actually participating in their outcome. Instead of proactively supporting the industry, creating educational opportunities, and having a game plan in place to provide a voice for the industry (and balance the negative impressions provided by news media outlets, and organizations such as PETA) there seems to just be this vague acknowledgement that something should indeed be done, and then the topic is more or less ignored. It’s as if they’re astonishingly content with settling for mediocrity and have zero desire to merely be better.
But you would think that with a CEO who earns $210,000 CAD per year as their basesalary, (plus approx. $40,000 in added benefits), and a board who’s collective income doubled between 2015 and 2016, that they would at least be motivated to try and care.
Their first mandate after all is "To govern, direct, control, regulate, manage, market, and promote horse racing in any and all of its forms." Marketing and promotion is written in their first mandate, thus it should be a priority.
Sure it could be argued that they do, in fact, care, and are trying to promote and market the industry to the best of their abilities. But when the governing body for horse racing in Alberta has seen an overall compensation increase from $1,639,602 to $1,766,410 (from 2015 to 2016 respectively) but a marketing budget decrease from $1,579,494 to a startling $392,270 in the same time frame, (a difference of $1,187,224, or 75.16%) it’s one hell of a tough argument. (Figures based on Financial Reports posted publicly by Horse Racing Alberta)
It’s time for a change. The industry desperately needs new ideas, new approaches and frankly a new mindset. The way the world communicates is rapidly changing and showing no signs of slowing down. Methods that may have worked 15 -20 years ago do not work anymore. With the introduction of social media to the world (Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010) the dynamic of how society shares information has completely changed. There’s been a complete failure within the industry in understanding how insanely powerful new platforms, like social media, are in terms of communication and awareness.
We now live in a society of headline readers; gaining people’s attention, and the ability to keep it has become our greatest asset. With the phenomenon of accessibility to information, communication, and instant gratification on the rise our time has become an increasingly important value. (Source, Gary Vaynerchuk) We need to find a way to get people to value horse racing enough to spend their precious time watching, cheering, and enjoying the races. With new fans comes new owners, and with new owners comes more horses and growth for the industry.
We require the information to be quick, and highly accessible. It needs to fit in the palm of our hands and grab our attention in an instant. The need to create that value in the general public for the horse racing industry has become increasingly apparent. If we cannot give them something of value, if we cannot harness their attention, we cannot sell them on horse racing. Regardless of how large our horse population is, or how many horses we bring in from the United States, or elsewhere. Regardless of what horse racing has done in the past, of what worked once, twice, or even a hundred times before. Times have changed. Society is continuing to change and the way the horse racing industry will garner interest and value in its assets will need to continue to change to meet this demand. The industry, its leaders, their governing bodies, and all those involved in it need to find a way to not only catch up but continue to evolve, improve, and adapt to these changing tides. The horse racing industry in Alberta is long overdue for some significant changes, and my fear, and the fear of many, is that the industry will simply die from being unable to keep up. It is my greatest hope that these changes will be allowed to happen before we have to watch the industry crumble.
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