WHAT CAN BE LEARNED FROM CHURCHILL’S SUCCESSFUL NIGHT RACING EXPERIMENT?

After today’s VRC meeting, Commissioner Clint Miller asked why the night racing experiment at Churchill Downs had been so successful.

As we often seem to do, we look for a reason – as in one. Again, as is typically the case, there are several reasons. Everybody at the table gave answers – good ones. And, the two hour drive home lent some additional perspective.

There seems to be three reasons for the large crowds at Churchill’s night racing: 1) they presented a good product, 2) they made it a fun social event with music and other things, and 3) they lowered prices for admissions and concessions. Simply put, it worked.

Gary West of the Dallas Star-Telegram had some interesting observations. He noted that the track attracted a crowd of “33,481 for its final night of racing without slots, the Derby the Oaks or a Jonas Brothers concert.”

His point was simple: Give the fans a good product, an enjoyable time, a special experience and a bargain, and they will indeed come out to the track.

According to West, “Churchill first night of racing attracted a crowd of 28,011, but, by all accounts, the track fumbled. Fans had to wait in long lines to bet and to buy concessions. It was a classic case of dropping the ball when there was a clear field to the end zone. But Churchill, much to its credit, rallied to make amends. For its next night, June 26, the track offered an extended Happy Hour, with dollar beer. And 27,623 attended. Apology accepted. And Thursday, a throng came out for the final night of racing. For the three nights, Churchill attracted 89,115, an increase of 318 percent from the corresponding dates a year ago. The increased attendance also led to significant increases in handle.”

As the Office Depot add says “that was easy.” Or was it?

There are several key issues here. Yes, pricing is one of them, but the bigger picture is night racing at Churchill was something special – an event (at night when a lot of fans and potential attendees are off work).

(Side bar: Another relevant question is why didn’t horse racing embrace night racing long ago…There are reasons (lots of them) that other major sports play the majority of their games at night. Horse racing has resisted night racing because it’s horrificly inconvenient for the participants who traditionally get up very early in the morning. That not withstanding, the folks at Charles Town have been doing it for years…If this industry is going to survive as a “niche sport” – and like it or not, that’s what it is – we have to stop banging heads with the big boys during weekend afternoon primetime…but that’s another blog for another day.)

Every article that talks about boosting horse racing’s popularity mentions NASCAR. Well, guess what folks, NASCAR races three days a week. They qualify, they race one division on Saturday and the big boys on Sunday. Three days at only one track in the entire U.S. of A. It’s hard for racing to duplicate that model.

However, this we have learned from steeplechase racing – if it’s a special event and a well-marketed social event, big crowds will turn out. The challenge is how to incorporate this into the massively crowded live horse racing calendar?

Like it or not, the problem is too much racing. The only way to create the “special event/social event” environment is to race less often. There’s not much special about a Wednesday at Pimlico or Tuesday at Colonial…You can’t have a special event every day…And there is nothing “special event” about the seemingly 24 hour grind of a slot casino.

Problem is less racing has a negative economic impact on everybody involved – the horsemen, the owners, the breeders, and, at times, even the racetrack. So with millions invested by all the stakeholders everybody needs a maximum number of economic opportunities (good economic opportunities) to make the financial model viable. Hello, conundrum.

So how do we run less and run better to get the fans excited without destroying the economic model that currently sustains thousands of stakeholders and some 30,000 Thoroughbred foals a year? That is not so easy.

Truth is no one knows that answer, and, unfortunately, there may not be a good answer. The giant swoon the industry is currently suffering may weed out a lot of weaker stakeholders whether we like it or not, and we may wake up in a world that has more fans for less racing and fewer horsemen/owners/breeders.

It may not look like NASCAR, but it may end up looking like a cross between Churchill Downs last Thursday night and any given weekend in England or Ireland with a dash of east coast jump racing thrown in for good measure.

Time will tell.