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Horse racing's media makeover is paying off

Less sport and more style. That's the winning ticket at the racetrack these days, as the horse racing industry is trying to reinvent itself in an effort to attract new, younger and female fans.

It's happening on TV screens with shows emphasizing the people as much as the horses, while the major races themselves are being recast as lifestyle events rather than just competitions. And it's happening on computer and mobile screens, with fans and riders connecting on Facebook and jockeys using Twitter.

Using a cable TV contest with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes and a TV series that built up to last week's big race, the Kentucky Derby last week enjoyed its largest television audience in 21 years, with 16.5 million viewers. A similar media mix helped the Kentucky Oaks, a race for 3-year-old fillies held the day before the Derby at famed Churchill Downs, break its attendance and TV ratings records. And if the Derby and the Oaks are Exhibit A for using media to redefine the image of horse racing, Saturday's Preakness is Exhibit B.

"The racing model that was in place over the past 40 years needed to be redefined," says Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club. "Racing can still be the centerpiece, but you need other activities and events going on in conjunction with it to draw a new and younger demographic. We've been trying to work toward that goal over the last year or two."

Executives of the major races and largest tracks didn't have much choice. In 2008, with attendance, purses and TV ratings for most races in decline, something clearly had to be done.

"The races were being covered [in the media], and the handicapping was covered, too, but we were losing our audience. They weren't going to the track; they weren't tuning in. They'd lost interest," says Liz Harris, vice president of Churchill Downs Inc., owner of the track at which the Derby and Oaks are held.

Thinking maybe they were "maxed out with the traditional audience of men and handicappers," Churchill Downs management sought a way to "reach out to another audience, more audiences," according to Harris. And the audience they went after first was women.

That strategy was crafted by Churchill Downs CEO Bob Evans after seeing data from NBC Sports that showed there are only three major sporting events that have more female viewers than male.

"They are: Winter Olympics, Summer Olympics and the Kentucky Derby," says Mike McCarley, senior vice president of marketing for NBC Sports. "And when you dig beneath the demographics … you see there are things that are inherent in major horse races that appeal to women that aren't inherent in other major sports events."

They include food and drink: "the mint julep and the black-eyed Susan," McCarley says.

"And fashion — everybody knows that for the lady going to a race, her entire outfit starts with her hat," the NBC executive says.

Also part of the mix are celebrities and parties.

"That last one was pretty shocking to us — how important entertaining around horse racing was with people throwing parties, much in the same way they throw Super Bowl or Oscar parties," McCarley says. "And while the Preakness and Belmont have more men than women, it is very close, almost 50-50."

Not surprisingly, Churchill Downs joined with NBC Sports to try to reach that much wider audience of women who are not hard-core racing fans. In addition to the reach of the network. Churchill was also attracted by what Harris called NBC's "family" of cable channels such as Bravo, USA and CNBC.

Last year, Bravo, a channel with a large female audience, covered the Oaks for the first time, and the TV audience for the event more than doubled, to 49 percent from 21 percent, according to Harris.

This year, Churchill Downs and NBC Sports presented a "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series — three broadcasts featuring six Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown prep races leading up the Derby. That series saw an increase not only in overall viewership but also a significant rise in the number of women watching. The audience shifted from 40 percent female in 2009 to 52 percent this year, and the average age of the viewer dropped by three years.

As important as Churchill Downs and NBC have been the past two years in trying to redefine the industry image and expand the audience for horse racing, they are only part of a minor media zeitgeist. It includes an upcoming HBO series, "Luck," set in the world of horse racing and starring Dustin Hoffman, and a Disney feature film, "Secretariat," which recounts the exploits of the 1973 Triple Crown winner, set to open in theaters in October.

And then there's reality TV. In early 2009, the Animal Planet cable channel launched "Jockeys," a reality TV series set at a California racetrack. By its second season, the series was seen by about 7 million viewers, according to Nielsen research provided by the Discovery-owned channel in Silver Spring, Md.

"Jockeys" also put horse racing on the social media map, thanks in large part to its Facebook page and such jockeys as then-18-year-old Joe Talamo and Chantal Sutherland on Twitter.

"I think we were a bit ahead of the trend," says Victoria Lowell, senior vice president for marketing at Animal Planet. "We saw this world of horse racing as being a really exciting, intriguing, dramatic world that a lot of people didn't know much about. … I think 'Jockeys' touched a lot of people and opened up this new and larger audience for racing in general."

Preakness planners are hoping to attract some of that audience to events Friday and Saturday at Pimlico with a mix of lifestyle-oriented productions and edgier, youth-targeted promotion.

Talking the same "lifestyle" talk as Churchill Down's Harris, Chuckas emphasizes the upgrades this year in music, food and fashion.

He also stresses women-oriented events, including a race Friday featuring female jockeys who have come out of retirement to ride in a charity competition to benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Churchill Downs also featured events benefitting the breast cancer foundation this year.

But if the Preakness is mostly imitating the Churchill Downs formula in that regard, it is breaking ground in the degree of its commitment to attracting a new generation of fans — both in its use of Twitter and Facebook and the tenor of its marketing strategy, the much-discussed "Get Your Preak On" campaign.

"The old-media strategies dealing partially with print and basic network TV have to be expanded," says Chuckas, 55. "If you're looking for a younger demographic, you have to be able to utilize cable channels like VH1 and MTV and the social media networks to reach out and touch them. So, this year, we have a Facebook page, and we have bloggers who work the page."

"We obviously have our own Preakness site, but we also have a site," the track president adds. "And the idea of that site is to expand the demographic into that 21- to 35-year-old audience."

While media and sports analysts acknowledge the significant jump in TV ratings last year and generally agree with the strategy of reaching out to women and younger audiences, they caution against going beyond the data to conclude that the racing industry is automatically on its way back.

Sports Illustrated columnist Tim Layden says he appreciates the way that NBC is using the same "big-event strategy" that it brings to the Olympics to enlarge the audiences for the Derby and the Preakness, but says, "I don't think you can draw any conclusions about the long-term health of horse racing based on NBC's ratings for these races."

"I think horse racing can definitely help itself through new media and social media," says Jason Fry, who writes about sports and new media for Indiana University. "But the distinction I would definitely make is that their best opportunities to make inroads with young people aren't really so much about horse racing as a sport as they are about horse racing as a spectacle, as a chance to get together."

And while Fry celebrates both the Derby and the Preakness for offering young people a "great opportunity to dress up, have a party and watch a horse race for three minutes," he adds, "that's not quite the same as saying horse racing is necessarily on the rebound as a sport."

Ratings for Kentucky Derby:

2007—13.8 million viewers

2008—14.2 million viewers

2009—16.3 million viewers

2010—16.5 million viewers


2007—8.4 million viewers

2008—7.9 million viewers

2009—10.9 million viewers

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