Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What horseracing can learn (or not) from the 2012 election

The recently concluded Presidential election has produced a plethora of after the fact analysis ranging from how Obama won to why Romney lost. Many of the authors seem to be focusing more on the implications of the changing political landscape on the GOP than on the winning strategy employed by the Democrats who used that change to their advantage. What does this have to do with thoroughbred racing and why am I writing about it? Racing is more or less in the same position as the GOP is and unfortunately has been for many years. I am not going to wade too deep into the cesspool of actual political commentary except to use examples of how racing can learn from it.

The country has changed demographically over the last 40 years to currently reflect a far more diverse society than what many of the GOP shot callers grew up in. The percentage of non-white voters has grown dramatically and changing views on many social issues especially among young voters has tilted the electorate towards the Democratic version of who should run the country. The GOP has failed to recognize that several social issues that they believe energizes their base (gay/lesbian issues and abortion chief among them) are costing them votes especially with the under 30 crowd which has lived their entire lives under Roe v. Wade and is a far more tolerant group than ever before. A hard line immigration approach has made the fastest growing demographic (the Hispanic community) wary of the GOP's intentions since the Democrats have steered that conversation towards a lack of compassion at best and racism at worst. While some may not agree with this assessment (For the record I consider myself a moderate conservative) it is hard to ignore that these trends and a changing electorate are very much a reality regardless of ones personal beliefs.

Where racing comes into this is that like the GOP we have failed for years to clarify our message and modify our sport to appeal to that same changing electorate and their differing views on social issues. One would think that a far more open view on gambling which has occurred over the last 20 years would benefit a gambling venture but because we were so slow to react, much of the gambling world has passed us by. The clamoring by the elitists of the sport about lasix ignores the fact that our society is far more understanding of the use of medications (hello legalized marijuana!!) and far less tolerant of animal abuse (allowing horses to bleed internally when a safe medication is available). The idea that our society is eager to take a hard line stance on performance enhancing drugs is belied by the fact that the NFL has never taken a hit despite likely wide spread abuse, Major league baseball continues to have record growth despite a seemingly endless litany of abusers (which makes MLB's Rob Manfred's words at last years medication summit ring hollow)  and the other major sports like the NBA and NHL have had virtually no issues at all. The message that the leaders of thoroughbred racing continue to send is not the one that American appears to want to hear.

Like the GOP many of racing's leaders can be classified as rich, angry, out of touch, old white guys. Also like the GOP they tend to fixate on issues that appeal to themselves and use an often complicit media to promote their vision of what racing "should" look like. Many want to go back in time to a place where racing was king despite the world being a vastly different place than it was 10 years ago let alone 50 years ago. Turning back the clock works for selling throwback uniforms and celebrating old timers day but the problem with racing is that it doesn't seem to understand its history or the mistakes made that have led to its pressing problems. Racing's leaders believe in the "silver bullet" approach wherein a single issue can be "solved" which magically leads to an uptick in the fortunes for all in racing. (political sidebar-actually this sounds like Democratic economic policy which is woeful which makes the GOP's failure to capitalize on that more egregious).

What the GOP seemed to not understand was that even if they were 100% correct in characterising President Obama's economic record as poor the key was getting the electorate to understand how it affected them personally. Amazing as it seems the average person on the street has very little understanding that the national deficit will have a profoundly negative effect on their lives. Racing has had a similar disconnect with its customers in terms of slot revenues and their usage. Many players feel that the slots revenue that racing has cashed in on has not been much of a gain for them personally. They feel that much of the money has been squandered on high purses for weak horses and that they are being taken for granted because takeout rates are more or less the same and in some locales are actually higher. It is hard to argue that those sentiments are misguided or mistaken. What racing failed to do (or perhaps realize they needed to do) is educate the betting public that many owners are struggling with increasing expenses and since the economic downturn smaller bankrolls in which to invest into the sport in almost assuredly a money losing proposition. That doesn't mean that racing has done an effective job utilizing those new revenues because we absolutely have not but racing has never tied together how the increase in purses benefits our customers.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that political ad's are over the top and by election day we are all sick of them. In racing the constant barrage against lasix has grown tiresome and most are weary of the topic. While I am loathe to continue to focus on this issue it is the perfect embodiment of the lack of vision on the part of racings leadership and how seemingly out of touch they are which is too similar to the leadership of the GOP to ignore.

When certain GOP senator candidates made inflammatory statements about abortion and rape I couldn't help but thinking that the GOP leadership did a poor job educating these men on being drawn into conversations that they can not win but certainly can lose. Racings lasix argument while not in the same emotional category as abortion or rape has brought out a stunning array of attacks on the industry from those within the business. The negative public relations hit that racing has taken from this self created problem is almost impossible to backtrack from. Just as those candidates made statements that will be used against them for the remainder of their political (and potentially professional) careers, the negativity that has been used against  horse racing will be impossible for some to forget. We have made a terrible mistake in debating this topic in the public eye in a political manner (attacks on the opposing sides, hyperbole, exaggeration, rumor mongering, etc.) because we have not only divided the sport with no positive ending in sight but have swayed many neutral observers against racing for no good reason based on false pretenses (that the public cared about lasix or that lasix was to blame for some nebulous issues that modern day horses supposedly have).

"Mistakes are the portals to discovery"
That quotation from Irish author James Joyce could be of use to both the GOP and the horse racing business if they are cognizant enough to understand that mistakes are being made. The Breeders Cup should not be in the business of swaying regulatory issues which it clumsily has tried to do despite its own relevance being brought into question. The number of races, unwieldy two day format, weak fields, increased international event competition, the vast majority of races being broadcast on a minor channel, stagnant handle and attendance are issues that the Breeders Cup should be addressing. However by banning lasix next year from all races it risks further alienating owners, trainers and the fans that bet on the races, also known as the people they should be looking to serve not irritate. The Kentucky Derby is one of the few events in racing to show almost unending growth yet CDI felt that an imperfect but functional system of selecting runners needed to be overhauled despite the potential detriment to the industry as a whole. The new points system marginalizes 2 year old stakes racing so much that the Breeders Cup Juvenile is now worth the same value to the winner towards getting into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby as the 4th place finisher of the UAE Derby. Can someone explain why this makes sense?

A lot was made of the "likability" factor in the presidential race and how much people felt that the candidates "cared" about them. For whatever reason a majority of people liked Obama more than they did Romney and felt that he cared more about them. Racing fans probably understand this concept as many of the news items of the last few years have not shown that the racing establishment cared much about them. This isn't meant to support or criticize but the NYRA takeout scandal, the TOC raising takeout, the claims made that performance enhancing drugs are rampant or that lasix should be classified as such, the ticket policies of the Churchill Downs pertaining to the Derby, inconsistent stewards rulings in regards to incidents on the racetrack, etc. are not giving our customers a warm and fuzzy feeling. Insulting, confusing and ignoring your customers are rarely the path to growth in any industry.

The GOP has to modernize its social platform, do a better job of educating the population about its economic policies and become a more open minded and accepting group of people. They must learn to bend on some issues, tone down the radicals on the far right and become a party that is moderate and willing to compromise. Thoroughbred racing has to start to put its best foot forward by eliminating the negativity that too many wish to promote in order to further their personal agendas. Racing needs to treat its customers better, try to get those industry groups on divergent paths back on the same page and work to promote what we do well and stop trying to turn back the clock to the "golden age" of 1960.

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