Equestricon, from a smaller circuit perspective

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I spent the first half of this week at Equestricon.  Despite the exhausting timing – it fell right after the Arlington Million – I'm glad I went.

I knew there would be a social aspect to it.  Though this was the first horse racing convention I've ever attended, I went to a lot of hacker cons in a previous life.  I approached Equestricon with a similar mindset, of it being a place where geographically dispersed people with a similar interest could gather under one roof.  I expected to meet a lot of people I knew from Twitter, or had only seen at scattered big race days.  That happened, and it was wonderful. We chatted racing, swapped stories, and raced squishy horses in the social lounge.

Since coming home, my mind has wandered to how Equestricon could better engage horse racing communities outside the marquee circuits. Smaller circuits matter for the accessibility, and therefore the long-term health, of the sport.

At the closing Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, I asked the panelists what they thought the role was for racing outside the biggest races: the smaller tracks, the day-in-and-day-out racing outside big stakes days. They had few answers: one said that contraction was inevitable, another suggested treating them like minor leagues.

A certain amount of contraction will likely happen should the foal crop continue to drop – but that doesn’t speak to the inevitability that even in a smaller foal crop, most of the horses won’t be Big Race Day horses even though they have been bred to race, are sound to race, and are happy to race. There will always be claimers, far more claimers than stakes horses. Any race at any level is a chance to tell a story, and a chance to get someone who doesn’t know horse racing well yet to experience thundering hooves going past.

And, too much contraction will deprive even more people of the opportunity to be exposed to live horse racing. What if someone watches the Triple Crown or the Breeders’ Cup on TV, wants to see it live, but their local track closed last year? They can watch simulcast from anywhere, but if their desire is to connect (or reconnect) with the animals, not having a track anywhere nearby may dissuade them from getting more deeply involved in the sport.

I did see some smaller-circuit representation at the first Equestricon, enough to be a good start.  I ran into some Chicago-area racing people out there – more than five, but definitely fewer than ten. In addition to big circuits like NYRA, Southern California, and Woodbine, there were some panelists who hailed from some less feted tracks like Laurel, Arlington, and Remington. In the exhibitor area, in addition to the Kentucky stud farms and New York’s breeding organisation, Maryland’s and Pennsylvania’s breeding organisations also had table space.

Some of that could be addressed with marketing. I heard rumblings at various points through the conference that people thought the marketing had been insufficient, and at first I had trouble contextualising those remarks. After all, my Twitter feed had been abuzz about it for at least a year, and I even remembered seeing advertising spots for it on TVG in the month or two leading up to the conference. I was bathed in ads for – and enthusiasm around – Equestricon.

The social media marketing focus was an excellent focus, particularly for the first Equestricon, since it leveraged the huge presence that its organisers had on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the world of horse racing blogs. It built an energized, excited base more quickly than any other marketing focus probably would have for the first Equestricon.

But? I get where the people who were hoping to see expanded marketing were coming from. Not everyone in horse racing lives on the Internet. Not every fan does; not every horse racing employee does. Now that the conference has one successful iteration under its belt, it would be excellent to see advertisements for it in more places offline. That could help broaden the base at Equestricon to people who care about racing just as much as we do, but may not be quite as plugged into social media. Those demographics could learn about social media and get started in online horse racing communities at Equestricon if they have the interest – and, even if they prefer the offline life, they stand to bring viewpoints and idea that will help people at Equestricon appreciate and understand a broader cross-section of racing's base.

Expanding promotion would help at all levels of the sport, but could help build attendance from people who hail from places with smaller tracks. Walking the backstretch, a viable strategy in Saratoga since the conference is local (and something Equestricon did!), may not work elsewhere. But, other strategies may. Here in Chicago, I would love to see advertisements for it in the track programs and on the simulcast feeds at both Hawthorne and Arlington. Yes, even Hawthorne as well: even though it's a summer event, advertising it at tracks that run through the fall or winter would get the idea in people's heads as soon as possible, and give them time to plan the trip. Even further, Equestricon could consider advertising in the Daily Herald – a newspaper that publishes horse racing entries and results – in space on that same page spread.

Other small and medium-sized circuits will also have simulcast feed ad space, program ad space, and ad space in newspapers that cover horse racing. Those would be avenues worth investigating, and worth placing ads in if the price is right. It would expose a broader base of people to Equestricon, and help move awareness from the social media-savvy fans and industry people to a more diverse audience within our sport.

It would also make sense to reach out to owners’ and breeders’ organizations in as many racing jurisdictions as possible, and highlight the advantages of them having a booth at Equestricon. Having a few breeders’ entities outside of Kentucky and Equestricon’s home state was a good start, but that can and should be expanded. It makes sense as a way for state-bred programs to get national exposure for their structure and their stallions, and it also makes sense as a way to educate people interested enough in racing to travel to this conference in Saratoga about breeding and ownership opportunities back home – or about some very nice stallions a bit off the beaten path.

Equestricon 2017 was a great beginning to what I hope will become a yearly tradition in racing. It got horse racing people from different backgrounds and niches together under one roof to discuss racing’s fun, difficulty, and everything in between. I’m hoping that next year it draws an even wider representation of the sport, and we can have even more varied conversations.

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    I so agree with you on expanding the info on everything connected with racing such as Equestricon to attract new fans.I was so disappointed when the Tribune here in Chicago quit posting entries and results. Glad that the Herald still does. I, for one, am not glued to my computer or my phone 24/7 so I welcome the printed material. I think Arlington Park is working hard to market the track to the younger clientele. I do paddock tours for guests at AP and people are amazed at what goes on to get a horse ready to race.

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