Courier-Journal Blog

The following was written by 20-something Lexington product John Cox, one of six “brand ambassadors” hired as part of a Jockey Club collaboration with Kip Cornett’s marketing/ad agency in Lexington to spread the word about horse racing and help get their generation interested. I know from experience that the best way to make a new fan is through one-on-one contact. There’s no magic wand, no one giveaway that is going to make someone a fan for the long term. Horse racing can be intimidating to the uninitiated, and I’m a huge fan of programs designed to demystify it and make it fun, especially through personal contact. That’s why I loved West Point Thoroughbreds founder Terry Finley’s idea in 2009 charging everyone involved in horse racing to introduce three newpeople to the sport. Such grass-roots, networking ventures (including the new Oldham County Thoroughbred Supporters) are hard work, but in my mind they have the best shot for long-term payoff.  Now, with Sunday’s Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, the America’s Best Racing bus tour (ABRV) kicks off it’s “second season,” just as the 3-year-olds do.

By John Cox

 “A failure to innovate.” That phrase made a tremendous impact on me when I heard it during a meeting of the Vision 20/20 group in Lexington, KY in 2011. At the time, Jim Gagliano and Jason Wilson of The Jockey Club were providing a summary of the economic study of the sport by McKinsey & Company that The Jockey Club had commissioned earlier in the year. The McKinsey consultants had found that Thoroughbred racing was losing fans at a rate of four percent each year due in part to “a failure to innovate.” Several months later, Kip Cornett, the president of a Lexington, KY advertising agency, presented to the Vision 20/20 group the concept of America’s Best Racing (ABR). He explained that The Jockey Club and his agency would be collaborating on a national promotional bus tour to attract a newer, younger fan base to our sport and would be hiring six “brand ambassadors” to spread the good word. Although I had been accepted into the Irish National Stud Equine Training Program for 2013 and planned to apply to the Darley Flying Start Program after that, I applied for one of the brand ambassador positions and was hired. Six months later, I can say it has been one of the greatest and most interesting experiences of my life. Five other ambassadors selected to join me along the tour: Jose Contreras, a “Cal-bred” and seasoned handicapper from Long Beach, CA; Mary Frances Dale, a fashion expert from Columbia, TN who worked at a record label in Austin, TX; Victoria Garofalo, a Long Island native and life-long racing fan who spent most of her life in Peachtree City, GA; Hallie Hardy, a Frankfort, KY native and fellow University of Kentucky graduate who last worked at WinStar Farm; and Chip McGaughey, son of Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, whom I had known since our days at Lexington Catholic High School. Since March, the ambassadors have made eight separate trips this year in six different states throughout the United States. Our market approach involves three steps: research, partnership and activation. In the weeks leading up to a visit, we conduct extensive research regarding local young influencers in each market as well as potential stops for our bus. We develop several strategic relationships with the key stakeholders identified in each location. And, finally, we use our knowledge of these markets as well as our partnerships to create fun and meaningful events throughout each tour visit. Our “activation” at each locale always includes giveaways, and the most popular giveaway item to date has undoubtedly been the jockey goggles. I’m not sure why they’ve been so popular but it may be due to the fact that most people have never seen them before and they don’t think they can get them anywhere else. We also present lifestyle and racing videos as well as our website on our three flat-screen TVs that are displayed outside the bus during activation. It’s an attractive, inviting atmosphere that brings the excitement of the racetrack to the people. ABRV Tour Destinations (Season 1):

Dates: Event: Location:
Mar. 12-17 South by Southwest Austin, TX
Mar. 21 GA Horse Coalition Rally Atlanta, GA
Mar. 26-30 Florida Derby Miami, FL
Apr. 3-6 Pre-Preakness Baltimore, MD
Apr. 9-13 Blue Grass Stakes Lexington, KY
May 1-4 Kentucky Derby Louisville, KY
May 15-18 Preakness Stakes Baltimore, MD
Jun. 5-8 Belmont Stakes New York, NY

With each visit, we try to create as much buzz as possible throughout the community. We create our own video, photo and blog content for our website, followhorseracing.com, and we try to attract local media in each market to interview us and share our stories in that given city. Thanks in large part to the efforts of NTRA Communications, a collaboration between The Jockey Club and NTRA, we have been featured in such print and online publications as the Baltimore Sun, the Bleacher Report, ESPN.com,Forbes.com, the Huffington Post, the Lexington Herald-Leader,Louisville.com, The New York Times and several other racing and mainstream publications. Ambassadors have also appeared on NBC, the NBC Sports Network, TVG and local TV affiliates in Atlanta, Louisville and Lexington. Our website has experienced a major surge in visits, totaling over 1.8 million page views since January 1.  The top site users per city are as follows: New York, Lexington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Louisville, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, San Diego and Dallas. The commercial for our America’s Best Derby Sweepstakes, in which we gave away an all-expenses paid trip to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby in May, attracted 111,813 youtube viewers. It appeared on NBC during the Blue Grass Stakes, and on the NBC Sports Network during the broadcast of the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby. Through our website, our brand ambassador outreach and our purchased media, we captured over 10,000 emails during the sweepstakes. Our ABRV Tour bus traveled over 6,500 miles, covered north and south of major interstates: I-65, I-75, I-85, and I-95, generating an estimated 130,000 total impressions on the road alone. Each of the ambassadors has his or her own personal Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts; there are also ABRV Tour Facebook and Twitter accounts, ABRLive Facebook and an Instagram account. All ambassadors share posts, photos and tweets related to America’s Best Racing and our social media efforts have earned us over 40,000 followers. We have been immensely encouraged with the response to the America’s Best Racing initiative. While many young people (“millennials,” as some call them) have not been exposed to Thoroughbred racing in the past, they surely seem eager to learn and participate in our sport. We discovered that right at the start of the ABRV tour when our bus was mobbed at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX. The racetracks and their respective marketing and publicity staffs have also been supportive of our efforts and we are grateful for that. ABRV Tour Destinations (Season 2):

Dates: Event: Location:
Jul. 25-28 Haskell Invitational Oceanport, NJ
Jul. 31 – Aug. 3 Whitney Invitational Saratoga Springs, NY
Aug. 6-10 Saratoga Special Saratoga Springs, NY
Aug. 13-17 Arlington Million Chicago, IL
Aug. 21-25 Pacific Classic San Diego, CA
Sep. 25-28 Awesome Again Stakes Los Angeles, CA
Oct. 26 – Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Los Angeles, CA

“Season 2” kicks off in late July with some “activation” at the Jersey Shore surrounding the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and we can’t wait to get going. We’ve fine-tuned some elements of the tour and we are confident that racing will get far more exposure than usual when we get to the Jersey Shore, Saratoga Springs, Chicago, San Diego and Los Angeles. This industry obviously cannot afford to lose four percent of its fan base each year and The Jockey Club’s America’s Best Racing initiative is living proof that this industry not only knows how to innovate but that it is doing so right now. Horse racing is alive and the ABRV team is stimulating a new generation of fans. We hope to see you down the road…and we’ll have a pair of goggles for you, too.

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