The Cult of Celebrity: Another Lousy Marketing Concept in Horse Racing.

Marion Altieri,New York writer

Marion Altieri,New York writer

Today I read an article that made me scratch my head and say aloud,


The story was on, a publisher that knows money and investing.  Forbes also covers the business of sports, because, unfortunately here in the United States—unlike in many places, where sport happens for the pure bliss of it—sports are Big Business.

I totally understand why Forbes would cover the business of the horse racing industry.  Our industry has so very many layers, so many businesses that benefit from the sport.  Everyone from farmers who grow hay, to farriers, veterinarians, trainers, exercise riders, race tracks, owners, jockeys, grooms, hotwalkers, on-track food service employees, journalists, photographers—horse racing provides many jobs to millions of people all over the world.

And of course, there are the Rich Folks, many of whom take their winnings and do wonderful, gracious things with it—like, donate to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund.

Like any other sport, horse racing has millionaires and billionaires.  Sheikhs, princes, princesses and captains of industry.  And I can think of scores of ways in which the wealthy in our sport use their wealth to bless others, both equine and human.

I admire these people.

Unfortunately, the writer of today’s article in Forbes seems to be a writer who covers all sports equally—and may not therefore have the best perspective with which to view the population of horse racing, as a whole.

The reason I say this is that—sigh—sadly enough, said writer fell into that trap, the Cult of Celebrity.  The article is all starry-eyed and glittery–proposing the idea that, gee-willickers, we don’t have enough A-list celebrities buying horses and getting involved with our beautiful sport.

The article asks if the dearth of celebrities in horse racing is a bad thing…it seems that we’re growing, in spite of our dire need for More Famous People.

Seems we need more celebrities in horse racing.  You know, celebrities other than our rock star horses, jockeys and trainers.  

From what I read, it looks like the author believes that, the more “celebrities” who participate in racing—the more low-level, Average Joes will get involved.  Like, your Uncle Jim who taught you how to read the Racing Form—no doubt, Uncle Jim became a rabid fan of racing and an ace handicapper because, gosh, he saw a picture of Bing Crosby at Hollywood Park!

Thank God for that picture, and for Der Bingle—otherwise, poor old Uncle Jim might never have discovered racing.  Or horses.  Or found his way to the betting window.

Really—I am not exaggerating here—the bottom line of this article was that horse racing needs more celebrities.  There are so many flaws in this idea, that I must take some time to shoot them down:

*           Since when did a horse lover really care that s/he saw a celebrity at the track?  We all know that Churchill Downs pays celebrities to attend the Kentucky Derby and to dress prettily—big hats, seersucker suits, bowties, pimp kicks and all.  The Derby folks spend kabillions courting these celebrities—again, in the misled, flailing attempt to grow the sport.

Horse racing, as you and I know, never will grow simply because some bimbo starlet with vocal fry oozed that she wanted Seabiscuit in the second.

In my humble opinion, the sport would be much-better served by taking all that money and giving it to Thoroughbred retirement organizations, outright.  No fanfare, no parties, no rock stars to glam up the place.  Just write the check, and save a life.

*           Being famous does not make one a Good Person, or a noble, conscientious horse owner.  The simple fact that someone has a better PR person than I have doesn’t make them someone who should be involved in our sport.

Horse racing has enough fools involved—the last thing we need is to add to the number of idiots who are willing to crash a Maserati for the sake of publicity.  Being a celebrity does not imply that one has a level head, or a good heart.

All it means is that you’re famous.  Period.  Like the Kardashians, who are—wait for it—Famous for Being Famous.  Have you ever wondered about the sheer stupidity of that concept?

(And, if Kim and Kanye became horse owners—do you really think they’d know what they’re doing?  Aren’t you just aching to see a horse take a chunk out of Kanye’s arm, just so show him who’s the Alpha?)

The writer of the article went on from horse racing to other equestrian sports—which have nothing to do with running straight and turning left—which made me think that he just needed to get as many famous names into his article as possible, regardless of their involvement with our sport.

And that bugs me, because, well, we in horse racing do have our own famous people.  The writer named a few of them in his piece.  But the thing is—we don’t respect them because they’re famous, we respect them because they’re responsible horse owners.

And because they share their wealth with those horses and humans who deserve it.

They may be rich, but that’s not what’s important about them.  I can think of many wonderful horse owners, such as the late, great Paul Mellon and Alfred Vanderbilt—who never graced the front cover of People magazine.  They were wealthy, and indeed they helped keep horse racing alive because of all they invested (emotionally, financially) in the sport.  But they weren’t celebrities.  They weren’t all fluffy, seeking publicity just for standing in Millionaires’ Row.

They were horse owners.  Period.  And, like those who happen to have some celebrity attached to their names who own and race Thoroughbreds today—if they’re serious about the game, their relative fame is totally unimportant.

No one will have a gravestone that reads,

Famous Guy.

On the other hand, many, like Vanderbilt and Mellon, Jess Jackson, and Sheikhs Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan– and some others–do deserve gravestones that read,

Philanthropist.  Kind Heart.  Horse Lover.

Fame for the sake of fame is, in my humble estimation—crap.  Unless one uses one’s fame—one’s celebrity status—to make the world a better place—who cares?

So why should horse racing—or any other sport—seek out people simply because they’re famous?  Celebrities will not help grow the sport—no one is going to get involved as a fan, bettor or owner simply because they saw a picture of Beyonce at the track.

If someone does come to the track, hoping to meet Beyonce—why would you, or I, or the writer of that Forbes piece—think that the googly-eyed fan would stick around for the horses?

Priorities, people.  Priorities.

Horse racing has our own celebrities:  horses.  Jockeys.  Trainers.  Owners. And I mean, Owners who made a name for themselves in the sport.

Like the State of Missouri, horse racing is The Show Me Sport.

First, you’re a horseman/woman.
Then, you may get famous.  To us.

But those celebrities to come into horse racing—either as a participant, or a paid attendee at the Kentucky Derby—won’t be here long if they don’t have the heart and the stomach for the ups and down in our glorious, painful, beautiful sport.

Those who do dig in and hang around—regardless of wealth, or lack thereof—are our real celebrities.

Something about which to think, perhaps, on this Preakness weekend:  what are our priorities?  Are we looking for more celebrity owners?  Or are we looking for horse lovers who ache to join us at the rail, and cry when their first f!lly wins by a neck?

Yeah, I thought so.