To Grow Horse Racing, “Did You Make Money?” is NOT the correct question.

Marion_TalkoftheTracKWhen faced with the task of growing the sport, horse racing keeps asking one same, wrong question–and yet keeps expecting to receive different answers.

The wrong question that’s asked of fans and those new to the sport is,

“Did you make money?”

when, in fact, the real question that will help turn casual or new fans into rabid fanatics, and rabid fanatics into religious zealots is:

“Did you have fun?” …

I posit herein the notion that, in our desperation to get more people to race tracks–thence, to grow them as fans and to maintain current fans–horse racing has shoved the cart before the horse. And that in reality–this is not the way to do it.

Yes, yes, I know: in western countries, the income from wagering is the slavemaster that dives the train. Here in the US, Europe and other western nations–without those wagering dollars, there’s no income. We need the bettors to drive this train. We depend on their consistent bad judgment when wagering, and their eternal optimism (or, addiction?) to keep coming back for more.

It’s impossible to visit any horse racing website without being bombarded by advertisements for wagering platforms. (Whether or not you look at them intentionally–your unconscious mind takes it all in.) Not that this advertising is a bad thing, in-and-of itself: I understand, that everyone’s gotta make a living. And that, due to the miracle of the Internet, it’s no longer necessary for a bettor to get into the car and drive to a race track in order to place a bet.

But the unconscious message that keeps coming across is that, in order to have a successful day at the track, you must make money. Like a tune that your head hears but your conscious mind doesn’t, the message that’s delivered to millions of fans and potential fans is that this sport is about money, first, and everything else, second.

This message is subliminal and yet somehow the loudest noise in the room. And this message must change if we’re going to bring new fans into the fold without scaring the bejeebers out of them. No one wants to get involved in a sport–or any other activity–if they think that they’re pressured to spend (and probably lose) money, every single time they participate, without exception.

Think about this: can you think of any other sport or Saturday afternoon activity for which the first question is, “Did you make money?”?

Did anyone ask that of you after your last Disney vacation?

Of course not.   (No one ever–ever–expects to go to Disney and come away with MORE money than when they walked in. There’s a vacuum hose directly from Walt’s hip pocket to your wallet–and yet you go there, willingly, and spend like a sailor on shore leave.)

Or let’s say that you take the family to Lake George for the day–or out for miniature golf at night–or even to dinnerdid you make money? Of course not.

So why do we insist that this is the most important question–maybe, the ONLY questioin– when talking to fans and newbies about horse racing?

I’m not a dope.  I do realize that many people wager on the side on football; on their own golf games–even on when their babies will be born. Some people must gamble on everything, even those things for which wagering is not necessary (or legal) to participate. (BTW, those who are compelled to gamble on everything are called, “addicts.”)

And yet, that is precisely the message that comes across to both established fans and new fans, alike.  And that kind of pressure, put on a new fan, can drive people away because no one likes to fail.  I can’t tall you how many times people have told me that they can’t go to the track because they can’t afford to bet that day.

I know, it’s impossible for some of you readers to understand that yes, there are people who don’t have cash lying around to blow on betting. But wake up–there are many people for whom a nice Saturday would constitute just going to the trackpetting a horse–watching the thrill of the race and enjoying a lovely lunch–but they don’t know that that’s “OK.”

My observation is that those (many) people live under the mistaken assumption that,  if they can’t afford to bet lavishly–they shouldn’t go to the track.

This is so far from the Truth. But why do they believe that?

Because that’s what we’ve told them, and keep telling them.

How ’bout if we flip the script,  and start asking the other question, the one that really matters?

“Did you have fun?

This question would free people from the unnecessary pressure to become brilliant handicappers and to bet their brains out with wild abandon if they don’t want to do so.

No one likes to be pressured.  It’s generally known about me that, if you try to MAKE me do something–I absolutely, positively will NOT do it.

Similarly, if fans–new and life-long, alike–feel the undue pressure to spend money they don’t have on betting–they’ll start avoiding the situation, altogether.

“Did you have fun?” may seem to many to be an innocuous question–one that cannot possibly help grow the sport, or the fan base.

But, in fact, it’s the ONLY question that will help bring new people to the track.

People don’t do things or travel to venues if they think that they’ll be miserable.

And people who may just not feel like betting on a given day–or who’d like to go to the track, just to see horses–won’t go if they feel pressured to bet money they don’t want to spend.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that wagering is bad, or that those who DO bet gobs of cash are bad in some way.

I’m saying, merely, that, while horse racing needs the income from wagering–we cannot overlook the importance of fans who want just to go to a race track to see A Horse.

This summer, NYRA took a major step when they provided horses in the (Saratoga Race Course) picnic area.  Outriders and their horses hung out in the picnic area–yes, up-close to The People–so that adults and children, alike, could actually interact with a horse. To touch a horse, hear her nicker and feel warm, soft noses.

The Horse, we know, is the core of horse racing.  (It’s not called, “fifty-dollar-bill racing,” it’s called, “horse racing.”)  This insightful new initiative on NYRA’s part brought many smiles to thousands of faces.

And you can…bet…that many of those smiling faces came back to the track, because they’d had fun, or because they’d seen the look on their children’s faces when their kids had fun interacting with a horsie.

And those people, whose hearts had been filled with horse-ful joy, inevitably will start spending money on wagering.  It may be one single dollar.  It may be 20.  But NYRA’s investment in the core of the sport–of introducing visitors to Saratoga Race Course to real, live, beautiful horsespaid off in spades, you can bet on it.

NYRA started the real work of growing the sport the minute they introduced that initiative, because they’d laid aside the sport’s seeming obsession with money and got to the root of the matter.

Horses are the heart of horse racing.  And, any horse person knows: to grow horse racing, we need to promote from the heart,out, not the reverse.  Don’t hammer them with wagering and the insistence that they spend, THEN try to get them to like horses and the sport.

Horses, first.
Education in the sport, next.
Teach them how to wager–and why–third.
And if they don’t feel like betting today–get off their backs.  I, for one, refuse to buy anything that’s forced on me.

I’ll bet that a lot of new race fans feel the same way.

Never ask me if I made money at the races.
Always ask if I had fun, ’cause the answer to that question always is a resounding, “YES!”
And that “YES!” is what’s kept me coming back, for 54 years.

I haven’t become a railside fixture because of the $99 that Marlaine Schweers and I won in 1975. That’s just money, and certainly has no power to entice me–or anyone else–into a life-long love affair with this–or any other–sport.

You want to grow horse racing?
Don’t show them the money first.
Show them The Horse,
show them The Fun,
show them The Joy.

I guarantee, new fans who are having fun will spend money, but people who are betting (often, losing) money do not necessarily have fun.

Flip the script and see horse racing AND wagering grow, from The Horse and The Heart, out.