By Bill Ordine
The horse-racing industry's struggle to capture its share of attention and dollars in the crowded 21st-century sports-and-entertainment landscape is rooted in an obvious problem:
Its fan base is of the 20th century -- and not the latter part of the 20th century.
Two years ago, The Jockey Club in New York released a report stating that the sport's fans averaged 51 years old, compared with 43 for football and baseball and 35 for basketball. Just as discouraging for horse racing was that the sport was losing veteran fans faster than it could attract new ones.
Frankly, horse-racing executives didn't need to spend a lot of money on studies. All they had to do was walk around any racetrack and check out all those original Members Only jackets.
Enter the America's Best Racing Tour and six energetic millennial brand ambassadors -- a marketing effort The Jockey Club funded. The ambassadors' mission is to barnstorm the country with a colorful horse-racing bus, spreading the gospel of win, place and show to an audience that wasn't even born when Affirmed won the last Triple Crown, in 1978.
"Horse racing is a great sport that has everything young people enjoy -- the chance to socialize, to party, to be fashionable," said Victoria Garofalo, one of the brand ambassadors. "It's just that those things haven't been emphasized."
Garofalo, 23, graduated from Georgia College State University in December 2012, and she blends a background in horse racing with an instinct for social media.
The goal of America's Best Racing is clear -- attract more young people to the sport. The tactics for accomplishing that are varied.
The colorful bus, which the group uses as its headquarters, has symbols such as @ and # on the side -- an indication that social media has a big role.
"We try to identify the alphas and the movers and shakers in a community and make contact," Garofalo said.
By that, she means reaching out to the most popular bloggers and tweeters in a city. Impressing those people can lead to a bigger marketing impact, so the theory goes.
For instance, before the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore in May, the America's Best Racing team identified those social-media alphas in this area and took them on a tour of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's Sagamore Farm -- a legendary horse-breeding farm that was home to Native Dancer -- in Baltimore County. The ambassadors have made similar efforts elsewhere, the goal being that the social-media folks are impressed enough to write about their experiences and, in turn, excite their audiences about horse racing.
But the marketing isn't all blogs, tweets and Facebook comments. There's some old-fashioned circus parade-type hoopla as well, such as parking that impossible-to-miss 45-foot bus in Fells Point, and handing out free swag and running contests.
"We try to identify high foot-traffic areas," Garofalo said, "places where young people shop and eat."
Occasionally, the America's Best Racing ambassadors have given away jockey goggles. Before the Kentucky Derby, they held a contest with prizes of trips to Churchill Downs. One was to watch the race from Millionaire's Row.
The approach changes a bit from city to city. Before the Belmont Stakes, which was held June 8, the bus was scheduled to tour New York and stop at Rockefeller Center. There was a social-media gathering planned at Belmont Park and happy hours at popular watering holes in Manhattan. In short, the brand ambassadors are engaging in impromptu marketing as they make their way around the country.
"We're learning as we go," Garofalo said. "It's the first time anyone has ever done anything like this."
The America's Best Racing Tour started in Austin, Texas, in March and swung through Florida; Baltimore in April, when the Orioles opened their season; Lexington, Ky.; Louisville, Ky.; Baltimore again, before the Preakness; and, recently, New York for the Belmont. For the rest of the year, it will make stops in California for events such as the ESPY Awards and the opening of Del Mar race track; return east for a while; and then motor west again, hitting the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles; and ending at the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park during the fall.
Garofalo said she came by her enthusiasm for racing honestly. She spent almost every summer in Saratoga, N.Y., attending the meet there with her father.
"For me, this is a dream job," she said. "I have a passion for the sport and I know that people my age can be attracted to horse racing, because it does have all those things we enjoy. We just have to get the message out."
More Cheap Seats:
• Ravens Come Together At Softball Game To Support Lardarius Webb Foundation
• America's Best Racing Attracting Young Fans To Horse Racing
• Six Future Terps Make Under Armour Boys' All-America Teams
• New Aberdeen IronBirds PA Announcer Excited To Entertain Crowd
• LPGA Event To Debut At Caves Valley In 2014
• PressBox And Tate Dodge Congratulate The Winners
Issue 186: June 2013