Monday, April 7, 2014

Guest Blog: So It's Root, Root Root for the....Best Horse?

--Drew Rauso
   While the first day of spring didn’t immediately cast off its cold winter brethren, we the people of this Polar Vortex’d winter were certainly happy to leave the icy conditions behind us.
   Suffice to say when the “real” first day of spring arrived several weeks later, just this past weekend, in the form of Major League Baseball Opening Day, there was such an overjoyed reaction that there was a petition requesting the day be made into a national holiday. “Baseball’s back!” Right?
   The sport, for decades and maybe even a century, has been this nation’s pastime. You ask Chevy, “the official vehicle of the MLB,” to make a commercial and they resurrect a 1970’s tune “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet.”

   Take that little example however you see fit, but the truth remains that baseball was revered, and that is the key word: was. Football is this country’s new national sport, and new is an understatement.
   According to the Harris Poll, a study conducted yearly to document adults’ favorite sports, the NFL attracted 35 percent of the participants to the MLB’s meager 14. This disparity hasn’t changed over the last three decades; MLB has dropped from 23 percent in 1985 to this year’s 14, with the NFL never below 24 percent.
   So, does that mean game over for all sports not centered around bashing your opponent’s head in. No, it certainly doesn’t.
   Football has its own problems to deal with, different from baseball and possibly more threatening; the sport injures people at an incredibly alarming rate. Careers last several years, not several decades, and more and more former players are diagnosed with head injuries every year. I don’t know about you, but if the President of the United States publicly stated his children will never play your sport, I would sound the alarm.
   All of which brings us to the final stretch: horse racing has a fantastic chance to make its mark on the general public of this country. First, a comparison is in order. A day at the track and a day at the ballpark are not so inherently different at the core. I know this is simplifying matters, but for argument’s sake, let it be for now.
   Being at the ballpark is as much a social gathering as anywhere else, conversation is welcomed like Sofia Vergara entering a party, and the sport provides a backdrop for a nice afternoon.
   A day game at Citi Field: the sun is shining, you may walk around outside the stadium for a while, tailgate in the parking lot before the gates open, eat food, drink beer and enjoy being outside. (Now this part is reserved for Mets fans, a not-so-elite club that I just so happen to be a part of): once the game starts, many times there is not an incredible level of attention to the game, for whatever reason, the long nature of the sport, the standstill aspect of many of the players, whatever.
   Looking at a day at the track (I am speaking on behalf of my experience, that of a casual observer frequenting the track with friends, so as to emulate what would hope to be the general public), I see many similarities.
   You are outside, with friends, eating, drinking making conversation. The sport provides the backdrop, and when the races go off, conversation is for a moment suspended, as everyone is bonded by their fascination of such majestic animals performing at an incredibly high level.
   The similarities are hard to miss, and with the positive notes there are of course negative ones as well. Baseball in all of its glory in the ‘80s and ‘90s and early 2000s was a power show, an entertainment form basking in its own gargantuan pride, with mammoth home runs left and right and players so big they looked like bodybuilders.
   Of course we now know the reason behind this dark heyday, and steroids’ ugly head is slowly getting pushed into the underworld, along with the Alex Rodriguezs, Jose Cansecos and players of today.
   The Steroid Era is a driving force in the decreasing popularity of baseball; the fans just cannot trust players anymore, and sadly, this seems to be a pattern in professional sports, i.e. Lance Armstrong and the recent PETA case.
   For horse racing to truly enter the world of most popular sports in this country again (and this goes for any sport), people need to trust the faces of the industry.
   In an effort to regain their fans’ trust, look at baseball and Bud Selig’s administration; the crackdown on players after the Biogenesis debacle is in full effect with Alex Rodriguez’s 211 game suspension, along with Ryan Braun’s 65 games and Melky Cabrera’s 50 games, among others.
   While it is yet to be seen what happens of A-Rod, there is a general level of disgust with the player and a respect for the league because it has not backed down against one of the most powerful people in the sport.
   I asked several college classmates about what they thought of Steve Asmussen’s scandal, and the resounding reply was, “Isn’t that a common occurrence?” (Needless to say this conversation took place only after I agreed to listen to The Chainsmokers’ song “#SELFIE”, which is a different and entirely more frustrating commentary on my generation, but I digress.)

   Even though the statement is clearly not true, it raises flags about public opinion of racing. While Asmussen will continue to train horses, his reputation has taken a hit, and the industry should make it a priority to keep horses clean so as to prove the “common occurrence” belief wrong.
   The parallels are obvious; so how can the horse racing industry reclaim its integrity, because without it, there is much less hope of attracting a broader audience. However, the headline, “Horse Racing Integrity Recaptured” does not lend itself to breaking news, so to grab the attention of the nation, something much more direct is needed.
   Enter Secretariat #2, a new superstar, a face of the sport that captivates millions and captures the hearts of the country. Completely aware that once-in-a-lifetime stars are exactly that, I am merely saying that through this example, in which a new darling horse breaks out into the field and serves as a headline for the sport, there is a strong possibility of enhanced awareness and popularity of racing.

   One breakout star combined with the timing of other sports’ problems, could spell success for horse racing in getting people to admire the sheer beauty of the sport, but for getting the most people to the track?
   Show off what the sport can offer besides the actual race, and a day at the track may become much more marketable, plus there’s the possibility to win money, and any young person would love that scenario.
   A final example is a tennis match.  Go to the U.S. Open, and you will find tons of sponsorship stands and tents outside the stadium with games, prizes, activities and more, all while the matches are going on.
   While the ticket is still for a tennis match, there is so much more to do, and the same can and should be applied to horse racing marketing.

Enough of my ranting, see you next week.

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