Stay Baby Stay!

October 1, 2004

I was in Las Vegas on Monday. No, I didn’t win any money, but I did have the privilege of giving the keynote address at the NTRA’s (National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s) national convention.

As an avid horse lover, I was happy to accept the offer. I even own a horse myself. This is a photo of my horse Rembrandt. We have competed in hunter competitions all over the east coast from the Hamptons, to Ocala to the Gulf Coast. While not a horseracing expert, I was able to give some unique marketing insights to the audience.

The NTRA is a broad-based coalition of horseracing interests charged with increasing the popularity of horseracing and improving economic conditions for industry participants. With the Breeders’ Cup Limited the NTRA conducts the Breeder’s Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. Make sure to catch the excitement of seeing this year’s champions October 30th on NBC at 1:00 pm EST.

I was asked to speak on the effectiveness of PR in building brands and advertising’s role in maintaining brands based on the theories of our book The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR. And to give my insights on what the NTRA should do to help further increase fan interest and participation in horseracing.

Horseracing has seen a recent surge in fan interest. Climbing from a fan base of 31% in 1999 to 38% this year. An unbelievable achievement. But one that can be directly attributed to three things: Funny Cide, Seabiscuit and Smarty Jones. The excitement and unprecedented PR coverage surrounding these horses in the last two years has reenergized the sport of horseracing. Now the question looms, how does horseracing continue its success?

Horseracing like all sports is celebrity driven. Where would football be without Brett Favre? Where would baseball be without Barry Bonds? Where would basketball be without Shaquille O’Neal? Where would tennis be without Andre Agassi?

The same principle applies to horseracing. And over the years there have been many memorable celebrity horses: Man O’War, War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Citation, Native Dancer, Kelso, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Funny Cide and this year’s Smarty Jones to name a few.

But recently it is all to typical to read this type of headline in the paper: “Smarty Jones retires at 3.” The hottest celebrity on the track retires at 3 years old at the peak of his career?

Yes. It is a fact of life. According to one trainer “I don’t see anyway (Smarty Jones) can earn on the racetrack in a year what he can earn next spring in the breeding shed.” A $100,000 stud fee has been reported. Good for Smarty. Fun for the fillies. But bad for horseracing.

What if other sports stars retired that early? What if Brett Favre retired at 21? Where would that leave football? Or if Barry Bonds retired at 21? Or if Shaq retired at 21? Or if Andre retired at 21? People watch and are interested in sports because of the game and also because of the celebrities. People love to cheer for their favorites and boo against their opponents.

My number one suggestion was to keep the horses on the track and out of the breeding sheds. This is not going to be easy. Many things will have to change in the economics of racing. One suggestion I had was to make the Triple Crown and other important races for older horses only.

Having more celebrity horses stay on the track will do a lot to increase fan involvement and loyalty. People don’t want to learn about a new crop of horses every year. They want to see a Smarty Jones – Funny Cide match up. What makes racing exciting is seeing your favorite win.

So to all my new friends at the NTRA, good luck at the Breeder’s Cup. And here’s to less sex in the stalls and more running on the track. Perhaps they could change the NTRA tagline from “Go Baby Go” to “Stay Baby Stay (on the track)!”