Make racing cool again – get Lady Gaga to the track

Posted on 6 min read 73 views

I have mixed emotions about “Luck” HBO’s new series featuring horse racing. The drama will be great. The action scenes will rock. But do y’all really think it’ll get families and young people to the track? Some folks in racing are hoping it will.

If you can’t see the embedded video, click here for the Luck trailer.

“Please, God, let me be wrong,” but “Luck” looks a bit like “John from Cincinnati” Goes to the Track.

“John From Cincinnati” was a gritty HBO series about surfers. Except America expects to see, when someone mentions surfers, blue skies, bikini babes and blond hunks.  Not a bunch of sad sacks yelling and swearing at each other while eking out a hand-to-mouth existence with occasional forays into spirituality.

Believe it or not, I still liked JFC, but I think there were maybe a dozen of us who did. John and his friends gave us land-locked folks a taste of what attracts people to surfing, but the show sure didn’t make surfing look cool.

And don’t get me started that the “Luck’s” promo features older stars like Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, who I love for their talent and grace. But that’s the point. I love them. I’m at that awkward age – too old to swoon over Justin Bieber, but too young to be cool like Betty White.

If you want to grow racing’s audience, you need to appeal to the youth and young families.  Keep reading below because I have some ideas.

What got me all riled up

The Blood Horse recently ran an article reporting a discussion of TV execs at the International Simulcast Conference held in Scottsdale, AZ. The article’s title was “Racing Needs Smarter, Not More, TV Coverage.”

As a matter of fact, I did hold my breath as I read it. Actually, you should read it, too. Go up, click on the link and come back. We’ll wait.

I have to admit I agree. Yes, racing’s audience is aging. Yes, racing must look toward the younger fans.

But the TV networks covering racing are also giving us a product that could use some tweaking.

I used to work in TV sports as part of the production crew. In the interest of presenting a disclaimer as well as my bona fides, I used to work for ESPN, and my husband still does.

So I know that a lot of the issues I see with TV coverage go back to budget and money, which is all determined by audience size.

Still, here are some fixes that could interest more viewers and shouldn’t be too expensive.

Too much chitchat among the announcers

“Who do you like?” “Who’s your pick?”

We do want to know which horses the announcers think will win. We really aren’t interested if they keep repeating it. Sorry, guys. I love ya, Laffit and Randy and Gary and Mike and Tom, but please give me info, not conjecture.

Betting and the money that changes hands is what makes the world go round. Keeps us in food and shelter, too. We’re interested in where most people at the track are parking their money because that reflects where the public has its confidence. Talk about social proof.

I think TV should spend more time on feature stories. Introduce people to the athletes, both human and equine. Explain some of the tack. The track conditions. Please give us information. Just like we “meet” the Olympic athletes and get a little lesson about the sport before we watch cycling.

Frankly, racing is a simple sport. The horse that crosses the finish line first wins. If a lot of people didn’t expect that horse to win, but some did, those “true believers” can win a lot of money from a $2 bet. See? Easy peasy.

Yes, show us the turf. Show us life in the back stretch. Yet, I know that showing already micced guys yakking is cheaper than having a roving camera crew, but I think more feature stories will help a show’s numbers which will bring in higher ratings. Still, I know – chicken/egg. Show me the numbers – preferably with dollar signs.

Stop using races as promo ops for other shows

Didja ever notice that the celebs you see on TV coverage tend to be associated with the network with the rights to air the race?

I bet Jerry O’Connell, former Louisvillian and often-NBC star goes to the Kentucky Derby  every year, but we never see him unless he’s got a series on the air.

Likewise, let’s say Neil Patrick Harris or Ashton Kutscher, two CBS stars, show up at the Kentucky Derby? Or Saratoga on a summer day? CBS rarely ever airs racing, so we’ll never see Neil or Ashton looking debonair at the track on TV.

BTW, core race fans probably don’t care if Suzy Starlet picks a horse because he’s named after her favorite candy, but you bet the general public loves seeing her at the race, all dolled up in a gorgeous dress and giddy with fun.

Why do I keep going on about the Derby and celebs? Back in the day, Churchill Downs promoter Matt Winn had the foresight to get glamorous movie stars to his race to be photographed, thus making the Kentucky Derby THE place to be and be seen.

Granted, the Derby’s not the cultural event it used to be, but keep in mind that, before there were Super Bowl parties, people held Kentucky Derby parties. And still do today.

Run the “lower thirds” of the post parade vertically along the side of the screen

Hokay. This is for the audience niche that wants to see how the horse moves during the post parade. Granted, we need all that info about the jockey, the horse’s record, its blanket number, current odds and owner, but let’s put it someplace else in the screen. Like vertically along the side of the screen, preferably behind the horse.

The technical director back in the TV truck can send an effects preview line back to the camera operator’s monitor.  That way, the camera op can line up the shot with room to see both the stats and the horse/jockey team.

Lots of youngsters are pretty good horsemen. They do dressage or reining or jump or trail ride. Heck, the horse they ride may have even come off the track.  That audience definitely wants to see how a horse moves.

And those TV announcers who know horses? They can tell A Lot about a horse’s mental state during that little glimpse during the walk to the gate. I’d like to hear that. They could even tell us if that walk changes their minds about who they like in the race.

In fairness, I see Donna Brothers do that from her spot aboard one of the ponies. She comments on how the horses and jockeys do on the way to the starting gate.

Ask the audience you want what they want

I like the idea of sending the desired demographic out with YouTube cameras to the track – if for no other reason than to see what they find interesting.

My bet is that they’ll be interested in the stories. People watching. And stuff like “Zenyatta dances” and “Uncle Mo digs Pirate’s Booty” and even the old guy with one horse that’s going for The Big Race. That’s what catches the attention of people of all ages and walks of life.

And, yes, they’ll want to know if Mike and Chantal are still a couple? They’re not. But the audience of Animal Planet’s show “Jockeys” got wrapped up in their competitive romance, enough so that Santa Anita staged a match race for them, the Battle of the Exes. Two years after the show ended. Think about it.

Bottom line

The racetrack needs to be “cool” again. It needs to be someplace people can feel proud about posting to social media – and not just us horsey or handicapping types.

Some tracks are better at attracting families and youth than others. Keeneland and Saratoga have their breakfast programs. Churchill has its Junior Jockey Club.

But the elusive market is the youth market – sensitive to eco-needs, animal welfare (how many vegans and vegetarians do you know under 35?) and “giving back.”  Yet, for all their admirable passions and causes, they’re still influenced by the celebs they adore.

So, get Lady Gaga to the track. Get the stars of “True Blood,” too, while you’re at it. And if Justin Bieber shows up at a race? That’d be dope.

What do you think could be changed about horse racing on TV? If you’re 40 or under, what – if anything – interests you about racing and what might get you to the track? What do you like to see on TV coverage of racing? What bugs you? Please let us know. You never know who might be reading this blog post – and paying attention. 😉


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  • Lisa Kemp
    October 8, 2011

    Hi Rhonda, thanks for including my own ‘pet peeve’ about networks covering the horse with the stats/graphics!

    I definitely agree with lots of your ideas, and that the ‘stories’ and relevant information about the sport are what’s going to interest folks in racing again. How many people paid attention when things have become ‘real’ and personal and the personalities of the athletes were shared with the viewing public – Barbaro, Zenyatta, Uncle Mo, to name a few. Also, great example of ‘Battle of the Exes’ – I loved the Jockeys show! Not just the drama, but also life both on and off the track.

    Perhaps those involved in racing and television have, in pursuit of dollars and rating, lost sight of what’s actually interesting to the mainstream and what would make horse racing compelling in a world filled with recreational sport options. I’m glad you’re using your platform to remind them.

  • Rhonda Lane
    October 8, 2011

    Thanks, Lisa. Although I missed the first 20 minutes, I was impressed by what I saw of NBC’s coverage yesterday at Keeneland. The Donna Brothers segments are awesome. I liked the interview with Egg Drop’s connections and the other paddock and backstretch interviews.

    And they kind of compromised with the stats in the post parade by shooting the horses from on high and zooming out for the graphic. (Quibble – I do enjoy the low angle camera shooting up from near track level, but I know the graphics designers need time to design a new post parade identifier package.)

    They also helped show Keeneland’s beauty which isn’t a tough job on a golden fall day. They showed that Keeneland is a nice place to take your family or a date you want to impress.

    That’s the next step. We want someone to gush, “We went to KEENELAND!” with almost as much enthusiasm as “He went to JARED!” 🙂

  • HRT411
    October 8, 2011

    Great Article !!! Agree that getting the youth involved with Horse Racing is key.

    The Gen X & Gen Y demographic thrives on activities that provide more social interaction and fit their multi tasking approach to life. Hence, I think Horse Racing Tournaments / Contests (Online & Live) could be expanded to meet these needs.

  • Lisa Kemp
    October 8, 2011

    I’m so glad you pointed out the GOOD stuff, too! I thought about your blog post and my comment today, and I agree, there is stuff to like – I just would like to see even more in-depth and useful information. Plus – I adore any of the Bill Nack segments. That’s top shelf stuff.

    I love your idea of ‘citizen journalists’ and would be curious to see how they could make it work. Keep us posted, girl! ;D

  • Rhonda Lane
    October 9, 2011

    Hi, HRT411, thank you for stopping by. I agree with you about enhancing the social media experience. I see a lot of my younger contacts excited to use FourSquare and GetGlue and apps I’ve never heard of, which is why they’re cool – I’m not up on them. 🙂

    Likewise, I think the tracks should be developing social media apps for phones. So much is and will be going to the smartphone. Heck, I need to optimize this blog for smart phone distribution. =:-o

    Hi, Lisa – I love the Bill Nack segments, too. Thank you for bringing those up. Just FWIW, the “citizen journalist” aspect wasn’t my idea, but thank you for thinking I came up with it. The YouTube idea came from Mike Trager, a long-time racing producer, who was quoted in the Blood Horse article that inspired me – er, kicked off my rant. 🙂 Because he suggested we do YouTube instead of putting it on TV. I was upset, wigged out and arguing with my Spideysense that he may be right.