Horse Racing’s Field of Dreams

Pop Culture
Horses race in the 2016 Kentucky Derby before a throng of fans at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

We are in the era of the event. I'm told younger generations expect more from sports. They don't just want to watch the game, they want to consume it – and more importantly, they want to engage in it. If horse racing is to continue to modernize to suit the tastes of the Tik Tok generation, then it must be willing to go places where other sports are currently thriving. It's time to take this show on the road.

Why is it that the Kentucky Derby has one of the largest combined ratings metrics in all of sports and the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial (races that produce Kentucky Derby challengers) have some of the smallest? I don't know. Do you?

Is it possible that the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial aren't being promoted as the pop culture event the Kentucky Derby has become? Sure. Maybe. Is there something about the scene at Churchill Downs that lends to the camera that, say Gulfstream Park doesn't? Frankly, I don't believe that – but again, who knows?

The marketing of professional hockey reminds me often of the issues horse racing runs into when looking for new ways to energize new and old fans alike. Many hockey players aren't household names, and even the stars are sometimes hard to market. Here's a test for horse racing fans: The top two scorers played on the same team last year: Can you even name the team they played on?

Okay, hockey fans: Have you ever heard of Letruska? Or Jackie's Warrior?

What if I told you the highest rated NHL event outside of the Stanley Cup Final is their annual outdoor Winter Classic? Even if you don't know the players on the teams, there is something sticky about the backdrop of pond hockey in a football stadium or in recent years, in front of a scenic location like Lake Tahoe.

Baseball's regular season games may have certain meaning in each market (see the Florida Derby in south Florida), but even Major League Baseball has realized that the modern fans want and need more to associate themselves with the sport. This year the Yankees and White Sox played games on a diamond in Iowa, had Kevin Costner emerge from the cornfields and voila, a social media field of dreams.

Baseball’s ‘Field of Dreams’ in an Iowa cornfield. (Wikimedia Commons)

The NFL goes to London annually and plays on venerable soccer pitches. College basketball games have been played on aircraft carriers. This is all to ask a big question: What does horse racing do to reinvent their events? Like baseball, horse racing has roots in American history that is unmatched. So, how do we take advantage of this aspect of the sport? Can the vast venues use artificial intelligence and modern graphics to enclose the venues and give the races a more modern feel – or in the right scenario, a “step back in time” feel?

In Virginia, an annual event called Gold Cup features distance races in a massive undular field where the horses will run out of sight and return to cross a finish line. This is a cultural event and obviously the horses running aren't part of the major competitive landscape. But the point is the event itself has become part of the cultural landscape. Patrons wear sundresses and post to Instagram all day. What it suggests is fans love the sport, want to associate themselves with the beauty, but being part of something at best cultural and at worst hip is the true draw.

With that in mind, the event is less about the horses running and more about what feelings attending the event evokes. I'm not pretending for a second that any of these ideas are simple or easy to implement. And I also realize the cost associated with any of them is massive and would need collective support from multiple venue operators and horsemen to pull off. But I am also watching a YouTuber become boxing's biggest draw and hockey's most important regular season game amount to which pond they ask the players to skate on.

Like hockey, could a makeshift track using the backdrop of, say, the American West turn a major stakes race into a sticky social event? Imagine racing with the Rocky Mountains or Grand Canyon as the scene setter. What if they are traveling through the vineyards in Napa Valley? Can space at current venues bring more immersive qualities into a big race day event?

Is this all completely off the wall? If you answered yes, then you should visit the Golden Knights for a hockey game or the Falcons for a football game and see the lengths they are going for the night-in night-out games, let alone the trips to London or Tahoe for those special one offs.

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