Archives for August 2014


Medical professionals refer to patients, attorneys make reference to their clients, art museums speak of patrons, and executives in horse racing prefer such descriptors as consumers and fans.  These are less commercial sounding euphemisms for “customer” or, even more crass, “bettor.”

The betting customer is the entity upon which horse racing ultimately depends for sustenance.

A consumer of horse racing, as opposed to a customer, could be an aficionado who regularly watches the sport on television but doesn’t wager; or a person who attends one horse-racing showcase event annually; or the all-important and mostly faceless individual who regularly puts money down on horses and thereby provides the lifeblood for the entire racing industry, from bloodstock to racetracks and tertiary participants.

These semantic nuances are meaningful because how racing executives think about their various target markets ultimately determines their sales and marketing strategies and tactics.  For strategic purposes, consumer and fan are imprecise, whereas customer and bettor denote an exchange or a financial transaction.

Promoting horse racing to increase television ratings certainly requires outreach strategies for people who may view the sport but never make a bet; this tack entails an appeal to the pageantry, traditions, and elegance of the sport.  But reversing the negative trend in pari-mutuel handle necessitates strategies and tactics tailored for bettors, and in particular for large-scale bettors.

Yet the words bettors and gambling, with their negative connotations, are often sanitized.  Doing so tends to divert focus from crucial issues like addressing uncompetitive takeout rates, catering to the relatively small percentage of bettors who account for the lion’s share of revenues, and cultivating badly needed new players.

While owners, trainers, jockeys, and others in the day-to-day operation of horse racing are vital to keeping the railroad running, there would not be much of a railroad to run without bettors.  The first step in revitalizing racing is to focus like a laser beam on racing’s betting franchise, rather than on fans, consumers, or slots subsidies.

Copyright © 2014 Horse Racing Business


Two recent epic events from the sports world provide instructive examples for enhancing the appeal of horse racing.

The United States’ 2014 World Cup soccer matches against Portugal and Belgium drew U. S. television audiences of 24.7 and 21.5 million, respectively, and Nielsen figures do not include viewers in public places.

A major reason why soccer is gaining strength in the United States as a spectator sport is the changing demographics of the country; many of the 40 million foreign-born residents hail from nations in which soccer is the dominant spectator sport.  Racetracks and auction companies have the same kind of ever-expanding opportunity to craft marketing initiatives specifically for immigrants who come from nations in which horse racing is popular, primarily in parts of Asia and Latin America.

Another example pertains to the value of a megastar. When the National Basketball Association’s LeBron James announced that he would leave the Miami Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the electronic media and social media exploded with activity; James’ essay on was the most viewed post in the website’s history and the Miami Heat lost 300,000 Twitter followers.

Similarly, due to California Chrome and his colorful connections, and intense promotion by NBC-TV, horse racing in 2014 received a lot more attention than is normal. The Belmont telecast averaged 20.6 million viewers, which handily topped the number of people who watched the primetime final games of the 2013 World Series (19.2 million) and the 2014 NBA championship (17.9 million).

While horse racing cannot manufacture a charismatic animal, it can make the most of the fortuitous break when it gets one.  Monmouth Park and NBC, for example, skillfully leveraged the buzz surrounding the filly Untappable’s entry in the July 27 William Hill Haskell Invitational.  A race with an equine star can be capitalized on and turned into an event.

Copyright © 2014 Blood-Horse Publications.  Used with permission.


Arnold Rothstein–a New York gambler, bookmaker, and racehorse owner–who carried the nicknames “The Brain” and “The Big Bankroll,” was never convicted of a single crime, yet his name lives in sports infamy.  He was reputed to be the mastermind behind the Black-Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series and also may have orchestrated a conspiracy that successfully predetermined the outcome of the 1921 Travers Stakes.

Eight players from the Chicago White Sox were alleged to have thrown the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.  Though the eight players were banned for life from Major League Baseball, they were acquitted of criminal charges.

In 1921, Harry Payne Whitney’s filly Prudery was such an overwhelming favorite for the Travers at Saratoga Race Course that it looked as if no other owner would take her on, and that the race would be declared a walkover.  Rothstein, seizing an opportunity, ostensibly to get second-place money, entered his colt Sporting Blood.

On the morning of the Travers, trainer Sam Hildreth entered Harry Sinclair’s formidable colt Grey Lag, as race-day entries were permitted in those days.  (Sinclair was later involved in the Teapot Dome scandal and served a brief prison sentence for jury tampering.)

Bookmakers made Grey Lag the heavy favorite, with Prudery the next choice, and Sporting Blood last at odds of about 3-1.  Rothstein reportedly bet $150,000 on his colt.

Shortly before the Travers was run, Hildreth inexplicably scratched Grey Lag, leaving just two entries.  Sporting Blood won the race by collaring the heavily favored filly Prudery in the stretch, and Rothstein pocketed his considerable wagering earnings plus the winning purse.  The putative cause for Prudery’s loss was that she was off her feed.

Questions still linger and will never be answered:  What did Rothstein know about Prudery’s not eating well prior to the race?  Was Hildreth part of a fix or an innocent party?  Why did Hildreth enter Grey Lag and then abruptly scratch him the same day, with no explanation?

Rothstein, of course, claimed no involvement in both the Black Sox-scandal and the suspicious Travers outcome.

On November 6, 1928, Rothstein was assassinated in New York City at age 46, and no one was ever convicted of his murder.  Hildreth and Grey Lag are enshrined in the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame.


Adding intrigue to the 1921 Travers mystery is that Sam Hildreth is likely to have harbored a grudge against the Whitneys, as he was once fired by William Collins Whitney, whose son Harry Payne Whitney owned Prudery.  Could a vengeful Hildreth have entered Grey Lag in the Travers to keep the younger Whitney from winning the race, and then withdrawn the colt after having second thoughts or being overruled by Harry Sinclair?

Following is an excerpt from Hildreth’s biography by the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame:

“Samuel Clay Hildreth, the youngest of Vincent and Mary Hildreth’s 10 children, enjoyed success as a trainer in the Midwest for owners Elias J. ‘Lucky’ Baldwin and Ed Corrigan before moving to New York in 1898 to work for William Collins Whitney.  Hildreth’s path to the top of the sport became an interesting journey.

Hildreth was an immediate sensation training for Whitney and others in New York.  His first major victory was in the 1899 Belmont Stakes with Jean Bereaud, who was owned by Sydney Paget.  Hildreth’s association with Whitney, however, was brief, as was his initial stay in New York.  In the spring of 1900, Hildreth got into a wild brawl with fellow trainer John E. Madden in the paddock at Morris Park, which led to an embarrassed Whitney dismissing Hildreth as his trainer and basically blackballing him in New York.

Fearing risk of Whitney’s disfavor, most prominent owners stayed away from hiring Hildreth for several years.  Instead of success on the big stage in New York, Hildreth was forced to train in places such as Chicago and New Orleans and slowly build his business.  When Whitney died in 1904, Hildreth returned to the New York stage and established himself as one of the sport’s top trainers.”

A coincidence pertaining to the 1921 Travers episode is that Grey Lag was bred by John E. Madden.

Copyright © 2014 Horse Racing Business