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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

New Ideas Plentiful at Tucson Symposium

Innovation is the theme of the 42nd annual Symposium on Racing & Gaming in Tucson and the two-day program got off to a lively start on Tuesday morning with a whirlwind of new ideas for attendees to contemplate.

The opening session was titled “45 Ideas in 45 Minutes” and a diverse panel of racing experts tossed out new ideas to the audience in a fast-paced session.

“Tracks should hire a Director of Animal Welfare, whose tasks include full public communications on incidents,” said Amy Zimmerman, Vice-President and Director of Broadcasting for the Stronach Group. “It’s time for us in racing to tell our story and how much we really care.”

“Racing should take its show on the road,” said Darryl Kaplan, editor of Standardbred Canada’s Trot magazine, “Horses should race down city streets, on beaches, and over frozen canals. Take risks, and bring horse racing to the people.”

Steve Byk, host of “At the Races with Steve Byk,” said that racing should emulate the tax-free shopping day concept by offering takeout rollbacks on target days that generally produce lower handle. Byk suggested that tracks try a “Tax Free Tuesday.”

The ideas came so fast and furious that attendees were told in advance not to take notes because a synopsis of the 45 ideas would be distributed afterwards.

The Racing & Gaming Symposium is sponsored by the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program and was held at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in the foothills north of Tucson. Racing executives and vendors from around the globe gathered in the desert to exchange ideas and to meet students interested in careers in racing.

At the awards luncheon, Bob Baffert, trainer of American Pharoah and a graduate of the University of Arizona accepted the “Big Sport of Turfdom” for Team American Pharoah from the Turf Publicists of America.

Baffert later reminisced in a conversation with Amy Zimmerman about how he fell in love with racing when he trained Quarter Horses in Tucson and also talked about the 2015 season with American Pharoah.

When American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, Baffert said he thought of his now-deceased parents and asked himself, “What did I do to deserve this horse?”

He said that the Kentucky Derby is the hardest of the three Triple Crown events to win.

“If you win that race, you can’t wait to win it again,” Baffert said. “The winner’s circle at Churchill Downs must be the most expensive real estate in the world because so much money has been spent try to get there.”

A trio of panelists talked about efforts to attract new owners to horse racing.

Andrew Offerman, Director of Racing Operations at Canterbury Park, said that the Minnesota track created a Canterbury Racing Club to allow fans to buy into a horse at a reasonable price.

“Every time their horse races we have 500 extra people at the track,” said Offerman.

Sophia McKee, Vice President of Marketing at Emerald Downs, said that her track realized in recent years that it didn’t have a horse shortage as much as it had an owner shortage. Emerald borrowed from the Canterbury concept to create its own racing club. There is now a waiting list to get into the Emerald Downs Racing Club.

The goal is to give people a taste of horse ownership with minimal expense and risk, McKee said, and hope that they later graduate to ownership of horses on their own. That doesn’t happen all that often, she admits, but said that one couple started with a $500 investment one year and got so enthusiastic that they invested $470,000 in horses the next year.

Ellen Harvey of Harness Racing Communications detailed the efforts of the U.S. Trotting Association to appeal to new owners with seminars and camps. One advantage that harness racing offers, she emphasized, is that owners can jog, train, and perhaps drive their own horses which is unlike owning Thoroughbreds.

Harvey said that attendees for the seminars hail mostly from the ranks of racing fans and that efforts to recruit pleasure horse owners have been unsuccessful.

She said that almost 20 percent of the attendees at the USTA owners seminars have followed up by purchasing a horse. In many cases they purchase more than one horse and also bring in partners.

Digital marketing strategies for horse racing were addressed by Sean Frisby and Rob Key.

Key spoke about his family’s background in harness racing and the social media efforts of his Manhattan-based firm Converseon for the United State Trotting Association.

“Word-of-mouth is the most credible and powerful form of advertising,” Key said. “Social media is word-of-mouth turbocharged.”

Key detailed the success of the Harness Racing FanZone and the “Ambassadors” programs in creating more “buzz” for harness racing on social media.

Frisby, the founder and principal of Brand Tenet, talked about “big data” and defined that term as “data sets with sizes beyond the ability of commonly used software tools.”   The four drivers of the value of big data are volume, veracity, velocity, and variety.

Frisby admitted that some data sets “wind up looking like eye charts,” but said that presenting data in a pictorial format makes it much easier to grasp.

The Racing & Gaming Symposium concludes on Wednesday evening after a day which will be highlighted by the “Innovators’ Circle,” racing’s first “pitch session” where contest finalists will unveil their ideas to a panel of judges.

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