Monday, July 21, 2014

The Haskell: A Day of Summer Fun...and Pretending?

--Drew Rauso

   Back in my very first post, the opening line was a quote about how little informed people my age are about the sport of racing. The line was, “I like that one’s name; he’s my favorite.” Today, a week before the William Hill Haskell Invitational, a similarly uninformed conversation was struck up between yours truly and several other excited 20-somethings.
    “You have to go! It’s so much fun; we dress classy and then drink all afternoon." Now, being in the same age bracket as these lovely friends of mine, I have grown accustomed to the word “classy” being thrown around like a Frisbee at a summer party. However, as many as my friends and all the other countless young Haskell-goers will soon see, the classiest event they’ll be going to is work the next morning.
   Here in the heart of central New Jersey, the Haskell spells summer just as much as the beach; everyone from Long Branch to Middletown and in between marks their calendars every year to attend the $1 million race. Unfortunately, the race takes a backseat to the afternoon of drinking, socializing and eating. In taking a closer look, though, is that such a bad thing?
   The race attracts upwards of 45,000+ people, and at $5 a head for a grandstand ticket and $8 for the clubhouse, Monmouth Park will take in a considerable amount of cash next weekend. When all those tickets are paid for, do the businessmen of the sport really care if they’re watching the race or not? In their eyes, couldn’t it be said that they have already won, getting the money out of the spectators’ pockets and into the cash flow of the park.
   While 50,000 people isn’t even close to what the Triple Crown races attract, the well-known park in Oceanport handles the crowd well, with games and activities abounding. This year, in what may be seen as a direct grab to attract more young people, Monmouth Park has teamed up with Lily Pulitzer and Tommy Bahama. The “Best Dressed” couple will receive a $200 gift card to both stores, and I can only describe it as a marketing ploy toward the many 20-year-olds who would love to get $200 for looking “fresh.”

The Great Gatsby
   This part of the Haskell, the part where young people like dressing up to go a horse race and appear (dare-I-say) classy, is where the pretending comes in to play. In much the same way that a country music artist arrives at PNC Arts Center to thousands of ripped jeans, cowboy boots and hats, there is a facade at the track. This veil, with which seemingly more and more central Jerseyans like to cover reality, has a southern twang to it. While understanding that racing and the south do not go hand-in-hand, it just doesn’t feel right to be in pastel shorts, bowties and oversized hats north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but maybe that’s just me. At the same time, if that is the point-of-entry racing needs to attract young people, then so be it. Run with the dress-up advertisement as a throwback; everybody loves a Gatsby party, right?
   Let the racegoers get drawn to the track for reasons other than racing, if that is what works (and after my conversations, it is) and let the grandeur of the sport in person work its magic. There is no use in trying to market the race, while as some people would say it is extremely important, without the title of Triple Crown hanging overhead, the vast majority just won’t find it captivating. But that is alright! Let them be convinced otherwise AT THE TRACK, not before they get there. Even to the casual fan, there are recognizable names that ran in the Triple Crown races, so the level of pedigree will be acknowledged. Wildcat Red, Social Inclusion and Bayern are some of the horses that I personally remember seeing over the last couple months.

   While it may be a hard pill to swallow, maybe the best way to advertise racing is not to advertise it all. Put on more “Best Dressed” promotions, or other seemingly silly contests so that people feel like they can be a part of something all afternoon. The Haskell hat, now a local tradition, is another great marketing tool. It can never be said enough, but everyone loves free stuff. Then, once the crowds are at the track, let the animals speak for themselves. In terms of a marketing gambit, trying to convince young people that the Haskell is a very important race not named Kentucky, Preakness nor Belmont is an incredibly difficult task.
   The lure of the track is unavoidable; don’t hinder its magic by over-advertising. Let the day speak for itself, and fans will come to watch, drink, hang out and spend money. Heck, I know I will.

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