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Minting new racing fans requires more than catchy songs

Updated December 6, 2018 - 6:40 pm

I like music and dancing — as anyone who has seen my frog-on-a-hot-plate moves will attest — but is that really the best way to attract new fans to horse racing?

I ask because the Stronach Group, the high-powered owner of racetracks including Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park and Pimlico, announced this week that it has hired Jimmy Vargas to head its entertainment division and “engage the next generation of horse racing fans.”

Vargas has done some cool stuff, including producing this year’s Preakness infield concert featuring Post Malone. He’s now working on creating an “incredible entertainment experience” around the Pegasus Cup on Jan. 26 at Gulfstream.

What’s not explained is Stronach’s vision for converting those coveted young music aficionados into racing fans.

I can see some merit to getting teens and 20-somethings to the track, where they will at least get some sense of the racing atmosphere. But without a strategy to educate them about the basics of racing and betting, I doubt many will be intrigued enough to return before the next concert.

A more fruitful discussion took place this week at the 45th annual Symposium on Racing in Tucson, Arizona. Numerous panels at the event sponsored by the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program focused on the opportunity presented by the expansion of legal sports wagering.

Sports bettors are, after all, already familiar with using data to make decisions, so it’s not much of a stretch to think that they could get interested in the races. But again, that requires management at racing venues to promote the sport and do a good job explaining the key differences between parimutuel and sports wagering.

The good news is that the tracks offering sports betting — in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — appear to realize they’ve been handed a golden opportunity to begin rebuilding interest in the sport and are exploring new ideas, such as creating multi-leg bets that involve human and equine contests. So a bettor could play a Pick 4 consisting of two stakes races, an NFL game and an NHL game, for example.

That kind of innovative thinking will go a long way toward getting the younger sports betting crowd involved in horse racing.

If they get it right, the sport can finally stop waiting for the band to strike up “The Party’s Over.”

#RJhorseracing featured races

It’s a quiet time on the racing calendar, but the #RJhorseracing handicappers found two interesting challenges Saturday at Gulfstream Park — the $75,000 Pulpit Stakes, a mile turf test for 2-year-olds, and the $300,000 Caribbean Classic, a 1⅛-mile contest on the main track for 3-year-olds.

In the former, the crew is enamored of the 5-2 morning line favorite, Henley’s Joy, who drops in class after finishing far back in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. They see Faraway Kitten (8-1) and Stirling Drive (10-1) filling out the trifecta.

Henley’s Joy makes good sense, but I’ll try to beat him with Nashtrick (4-1), who ran a bang-up race in the Grade 1 Summer Stakes on the Woodbine turf before running poorly over the main track. I’ll use Henley’s Joy and Louder Than Bombs (6-1) underneath.

In the intriguing Caribbean Classic, which features horses that have been racing in Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela, the crowd is firmly behind 3-5 morning line favorite Kukulkan, winner of the Mexican Triple Crown. They see El Salsero (20-1) and Sol De Orion (6-1) as the main threats to the favorite.

This week’s featured comment comes from crowd ’capper Howie Reed, who advises that in a race like this, “Bet the jockey and the jockey agent.” He notes that Irad Ortiz Jr., the top U.S. rider by earnings, lands on the favorite.

There’s no way I’m taking 3-5 on a horse who has been dominant in Mexico but hasn’t faced horses that may be as talented as he is. I’ll take the improving Panama runner Dario Ruth (20-1) to spring an upset and use Kukulkan and Bukowski (6-1) underneath.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Friday. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.