Illinois Racing: Where's It Headed? Improved Marketing Methods Seen as One Way to Attract Public
Spellman, Mike, Leusch, John, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Mike Spellman and John Leusch Daily Herald Sports Writers
Half a century ago, horse racing was where it was at if you were a sports fan.
The grandstands were packed, the races were played up big-time in newspapers, and on television, the sport was thriving.
Those days are gone.
Today, horse racing is an afterthought to many. Head out to the local track during the week and you'll find way more empty seats than warm bodies. On weekends, things pick up, but it's a rare day when there is a full house.
Where did things go wrong? What can the industry do? What is the future of Illinois racing?
For this two-part series, the Daily Herald assembled a panel of 11 horsemen and track executives to discuss the recent rash of horse breakdowns at Arlington, and in today's second part, the future of Illinois racing. Here is an edited transcript of some of that discussion:
Q. Let's step away from the breakdowns for a minute. If you were the marketing director of the race track, what would be the first thing that you would do?
Michael Campbell, trainer: Well, I'll tell you one of the things that I recently experienced. We raced a horse at Prairie Meadows the other night, and it is a casino - it's a coordinated effort between slots and racing - but they have no admission.
It seems to me that some adjustment should be made there on parking or admissions or give away. Our ITHA (Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association) several times has approached management, particularly at Hawthorne Race Course. We've tried to be coordinated with them in an effort toward marketing. And very routinely we've been turned down on those efforts.
We're willing as a horsemen's group to do anything that's coordinated with management that has a positive effect on racing. They do not utilize us enough.
Janice Ely, trainer: An example like that would be like the "Party in the Park" (promotional events) at Arlington. Look how resistant we all were to a 3 o'clock post when they first started.
And that's the best thing going here. People come back, they look forward to it every week. They could expand on that.
Campbell: Let me tell you something. When we were asked to be part of the Cigar Challenge and put up $125,000 toward (the purse). It came right out of our general purse fund. We were the first ones to step up and say, "Here's the $125,000." (Editor's note: On July 13, 1996, unbeaten Cigar won his 16th straight race in front of a sold-out crowd attending the Arlington Citation Challenge at Arlington Park).
That hurts the day-to-day traffic, but, I'm telling you, we provide the passion and the spark for this thing.
Jim Miller, Hawthorne Race Course assistant general manager: I agree. But at the same point, though, there is the financial issue that does come into effect, too, when it comes to marketing.
One thing that we had dealt with for years was our replay show. Our replay show came at a cost as well. ... Sponsorship money was pulled and monies were pulled on behalf of the ITHA as well, which makes you have to determine where you're going to spend your money. At the same time, it means, OK, if you can't do one thing, you may have to do another.
Like Mike said, it's such things as even parking costs or admission costs, and we finally adopted to go into free parking - just something to give back a little bit of something.
Q. How upset were you guys that there was no replay show this year for Arlington? Is that a big marketing tool for the sport right there?
Campbell: Here's an owner right to your left, he'd love to see it.
Tom Fedro, thoroughbred owner: I used to watch it. I've had friends say, "How'd your horse do?" And I'd say "Well, watch it." And they'd say, "Hey, that was interesting. Can you get me tickets to go out there? …