Marketing effort: better late than never

On Horse Racing

December 21, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

If the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is to meet its lofty goal of making horse racing one of the top five sports in the country, a Baltimore lawyer and racing activist is poised to play a major role.

Alan M. Foreman, long immersed in racing issues, has been named one of 10 directors of the newly created NTRA.

An alliance of various segments of the racing industry, the NTRA is designed to be the effective central office the sport has never had. Like the PGA, NBA and NASCAR, the NTRA is to pull together and revive a fragmented, declining industry through marketing, promotion and an increased presence on television.

Skepticism abounds -- as is endemic to horse racing -- but Foreman says he has never seen a more dedicated and united front among the widely disparate factions of the racing industry.

"I had to be sold on this myself," Foreman said. "But I'm now convinced it deserves the chance to move forward. Whether it's going to work or not, I don't know. But for the good of the industry, we need to find out,"

The NTRA hopes to work next year with a budget of about $25 million, funded largely by contributions from its founding members (Breeders' Cup, The Jockey Club, Keeneland, Oak Tree Racing Association and National Thoroughbred Association) as well as breeders, sales companies, horsemen and racetracks.

Thirty-five tracks have signed membership agreements with the NTRA, including Pimlico and Laurel Park. Based on a still-evolving formula involving a percentage of handle, the two tracks' contribution next year would be about $260,000. The total contribution from tracks would be about $5 million. That figure would be matched by horsemen (Maryland horsemen's share would also be about $260,000).

The first NTRA initiative evident to the public probably will be a series of television commercials next year built around the slogan: "Go, baby, go!" The New York advertising agency Merkley Newman Harty came up with that.

"My initial reaction was the same as everybody else: 'What?' " Foreman said. "But maybe that's a good thing. We in the racing industry haven't been very good at marketing ourselves."

During consumer testing, Foreman said, that slogan "registered off the charts." It is designed to appeal to the casual fan or the new fan, not the die-hard fan.

The NTRA also plans to enhance racing's exposure on national TV, even buying time when necessary. It hopes to group races so that viewers can easily follow them, such as the races leading to the Triple Crown and then the Triple Crown series itself, the races leading to the Breeders' Cup and then the Breeders' Cup, a series of races for older horses, perhaps even the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships (MATCH).

And then there are plans for NTRA merchandise, customer-retention programs, a central purchasing system, customer-relations training and corporate sponsorships.

"It's a very big menu," Foreman said.

It's a very big task. According to NTRA research, horse racing, to become one of the country's top five sports, must supplant golf or auto racing, which share the No. 5 spot. The top four are football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

Horse racing not only languishes below those six, but it also ranks below soccer, boxing, figure skating and tennis.

Recovering jockey thankful

As we enter the heart of the holidays, one family thankful for its blessings is that of Pamela and Frank Douglas. Douglas, 37, a popular jockey, nearly died four months ago after a vicious spill at Timonium.

Flown by helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Douglas survived many tense hours despite a severe brain injury. But then, almost miraculously, he improved and in a week was released. After another week at Kernan Hospital, he was sent home. He continues therapy at the Center for Neuro Rehabilitation in Annapolis, but after five days a week he's now down to one.

"I feel 100 percent," said the ever-optimistic Douglas. "But they want me to wait until probably April to start riding again."

Recently elected a director of the Eastern section of the Jockeys' Guild, Douglas has begun visiting his colleagues at Laurel Park.

For Christmas, Douglas said, he and his wife and their two children will spend the morning at their Severn home, and then visit Pamela's parents. It will be a low-key day, he said, but one for which he is ever thankful. The iron horse Awad, soon to turn 8, is not yet headed to the breeding shed. Plans to retire the Maryland-bred son of Caveat have been postponed because a suitable breeding plan has not emerged, said the horse's principal owner, Jim Ryan.

"We've been talking to several breeding farms here in Maryland and elsewhere," Ryan said. "But nobody has come up with a breeding program that makes sense. It appears we can make more money racing than breeding."

Awad is for sale to the right breeder, Ryan said.

"We'd love to find a good home for him," he said. "But in this part of the country they favor dirt and speed rather than distance and grass."

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