How horse racing can come from behind

Image: Thoroughbred racing is only the 13th most popular sport in America. But a new strategy is on track.

May 15, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Come one, come all. Place your wagers free! It's the NTRA Racing Experience!

And here you were, loping across the hot asphalt of the Camden Yards parking lot, ticket in hand, three hours before a ballgame, minding your own business. Here you were, pondering exactly how the Baltimore bullpen might cough up yet another five-run lead, when Echo Lee, microphone in hand, cries out again: Twelve minutes to post! Place your wagers free! Come on board!

At least this ship doesn't look like it's sinking. Lee, the fresh-faced young woman in the khaki shorts, stands in the rear of a glistening 60-foot tractor-trailer -- "Go, Baby, Go!" reads a sign on the side -- inside something like a rolling museum. Glass display cases show off trophies, horseshoes, bright jockey silks. A dozen TV monitors flicker with the images of thoroughbreds thundering around a track. Place your wagers free, folks! Eleven minutes to post! Eleven minutes to post at Churchill Downs! As you stride up the aluminum steps, a rap tune throbs through the speakers. Lee, muffling her mike for the moment, tells you about the NTRA. It's the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a group of horse-industry interests (breeders, owners, tracks, jockeys and more) that came together three years ago to start promoting the sport of racing in a unified way. This $1.4 million exhibit -- the NTRA Racing Experience, known by its operators simply as the Truck -- is one of the vehicles the organization has developed for bringing the sport to a wider audience. Sponsored by TVG (a new, 24-hour horse-racing channel that operates out of 26 racetracks), the Breeders' Cup promotional organization and the American Quarter Horse As- sociation, the Truck began barnstorming the country at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago and will tour 30-odd sites across the nation in the coming year.

Lee takes up her mike again.

Place your wagers free! Come on board to the NTRA Racing Experience! Free passes to Pimlico and Laurel Park! Ten minutes to post!

A few dazed-looking baseball fans wander up the steps. A man in a garish O's T-shirt tugs the 6-year-old he has in tow toward the Tote Machine, an electronic station that looks like an ATM but is a place to punch in a bet. Your choices are eight horses -- including Silverbulletday at 2-5, Excellent Meeting at 4-1 and Great Deed at longer odds -- that are listed on TV monitors where a video of an actual Churchill Downs race will be shown in nine minutes.

"You'll get to feel the excitement of a race you've placed a bet on," Lee says with a grin.

Sponsored by TVG, races from around the nation! Win a limited-edition T-shirt! Win an official Triple Crown hat! Eight minutes to post!

The pitch

Two young parents and their three children enter the exhibit, and you take a stroll around. On one wall, a chart maps the lineage of four famous horses: In a tangled skein, it lists 21 sires for Secretariat alone. A poster tells of three celebrated trainers, Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, Elliott Walden. You've heard of Lukas, so you read up on the others: Both have generated more than $20 million in lifetime winnings. Another display, "Picking Winners," tells you some people "just pick horses by their names or the colors of the jockey's silks" (that would be you) while "others enjoy the intellectual exercise of studying past performance information" such as consistency, earnings, early speed (not you).

Win a free trip to the Breeders' Cup! Free voucher to place your bets! Win a free limited-edition T-shirt! Seven minutes to post!

Lee hands you a leaflet. Horse racing, you learn, is the 13th most popular sport in America, finishing well behind boxing, hockey and college basketball. Only 5 percent of Americans, according to a recent poll, call themselves avid fans of horse racing; roughly 30 percent say they have "some interest."

Thoroughbred racing has an image problem, says Chip Tuttle, NTRA's vice president of communications: The casual fan thinks racing is complicated and finds wagering intimidating. Events like the Racing Experience are aimed at raising awareness, at sharing the excitement of the sport with nontraditional audiences. Racing must also counter the "self-propagating myth," in Tuttle's words, that the sport has an undesirable demographic.

Research has shown that the average fan is a 45-year-old white male, prompting fears in the industry that the sport will die away along with its fans. That, in Tuttle's view, is an inaccurate take. The research skews in that direction, he says, because many races are run on weekdays and therefore attract retirees, whereas "demographics for weekend races are remarkably similar to those of baseball." That includes as many women as men and a diversity of ages.

Still, with such projects as the Racing Experience tour, the industry is placing a younger crowd in its sights. "We're appealing to the 18-to-34 age group," says Lee with a thumbs-up. "Definitely."

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