I have spent nearly 40 years of my life working in the horse racing business. One gets to think about all kinds of horse racing issues, and from different perspectives, with my background.
What will happen for sure, win or lose, is a large number of people that are not horse racing fans will become curious onlookers even if for just one day. It is a lot like the Kentucky Derby, however the historical significance is 10 times greater. There are 144 Derby winners but only 12 horses have won the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes that make up horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Attendance at racetracks and off-track betting (OTB) facilities from coast to coast will swell on Saturday. The beauty is this promotion did not cost a penny to get newcomers to visit. Justify did all the work for them.
The marketing, as in what the tracks and OTB parlors do to hopefully entice the curious newcomers into coming back for more, is the $64,000 question. There must be a “bridge” or good reason for these folks to return.
It is a tremendous business opportunity. I personally know by just looking at the sales figures from my newcomer book “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies”. Sales spike twice a year during the Triple Crown series and Breeders’ Cup. These are critical opportunities that horse racing must take advantage of.
There is a history for the Justify experience and it happened just a few years ago. American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015. He became the first horse to do so since Affirmed in 1978.
So did American Pharoah have a positive long-term effect on the sport?
After he won the Belmont Stakes, American Pharoah ran three more times, in the Haskell at Monmouth Park, the Travers at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.
Those three days would have drawn huge crowds no matter what. But having a Triple Crown horse involved made them much bigger events. However, the one issue with superstar horses is this: They can’t give interviews.
The last talking horse I know of was Mr. Ed. Thus the public persona of American Pharoah, and hopefully Justify should he win on Saturday, is through their same trainer Bob Baffert. Fortunately Baffert is a colorful quote machine for the media and fantastic with the public.
Baffert has been through the drill. He knows these opportunities don’t come along very often for the sport. Plus the timeframe to capitalize on the hysteria is brief.
The odds of Justify racing as a 4-year-old are long. American Pharoah did not race again after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The insurance costs become prohibitive. Plus there is so much money to be made in the breeding shed. It is too lucrative to retire after the 3-year-old season and begin a new career.
So the potential growth lies in the trenches when newcomers go to see Justify on Saturday to the racetracks and OTBs or watch the Belmont Stakes broadcast on NBC. Did we collectively do enough with our marketing, hospitality, and education? I really want the answer to be “yes”.
Richard Eng is the author of “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies,” an introductory book for newcomers to the sport of horse racing. For two decades, he was the turf editor and handicapper for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He still handicaps the Southern California tracks and his picks are for sale at www.racedaylasvegas.com. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @richeng4propick and on Facebook.