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Q&A With Alexander Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association

Two weeks ago Orb thundered from behind to win the Kentucky Derby, and this Saturday the horse racing world turns to Baltimore and The Preakness to see if the second leg of the Triple Crown will bring even more drama. Horse Racing continues to have its challenges, but the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is working to try and identify new fans and grow the sport once again. We caught up with NTRA Alexander M. Waldrop is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association  to talk, Orb, gambling and KFC on jockey silks. Alex Waldrop with thoroughbred at Keeneland Race Course, KY 10.18.2011

Sports gambling is a fast growing potential business in the US again, with lots of legislation coming about. How is horse racing positioned to take better advantage of the position they are already in?

There is a lot of discussion these days about the “potential” for expansion of legal sports wagering and I-gaming but very little is happening at the current time. Legal pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing has been thriving online for more than a decade. Known in the horse racing industry as advance deposit wagering or “ADW,” online wagering is a federally-approved, state regulated, multi-billion dollar business that remains the fastest growing segment of our industry.  It is a catalyst for both job creation and substantial additional revenue for our industry and for state governments that regulate our sport. We are tailor-made for the Internet; much more so than other sports. Our sport showcases the most beautiful and majestic animals in the world. It is a data-rich, with each race representing its own distinct puzzle and challenge. And Thoroughbred racing is delivered in two minute bursts that make it attractive and easy to view on a TV, computer, mobile or tablet device. Thus, in spite of our history and tradition that some perceive as limiting, horse racing currently uses the latest technology to reach a whole new audience online.

How will the NTRA be leveraging Orb’s win leading to The Preakness?

We are already engaged in numerous marketing and promotional efforts to help introduce Orb to America. NTRA Communications and The Jockey Club’s together have created “America’s Best Racing” (www.followhorseracing.com) which is actively working to introduce Orb and his connections to a much broader audience.  Our focus has not only been on the amazing colt and his efforts on Derby Day but also Orbs’ exceptional owners, the Phipps and Janney family stables, which happen to be two of the oldest-running stables in the sport; a Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey; and one of the most successful young jockeys in the sport, Joel Rosario.  Also, much will occur organically in the days immediately following the Kentucky Derby as the mainstream media turns its attention to horse racing for the next few weeks. While we have our hands full promoting the Preakness today, things will really ratchet up next week if Orb wins on Saturday and puts himself and his connections on the brink of a Triple Crown.

NBC is an ever-growing ally of horse racing…how has that relationship expanded this year?

NBC is a fantastic partner. Not only do they broadcast the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, but also they carry a number of other important races leading to the Kentucky Derby like the Blue Grass Stakes in Kentucky, the Wood Memorial in New York and Santa Anita Derby in California. NBC’s expanded coverage of races leading to the Derby together with the award-winning production of the events themselves undoubtedly helped generate the huge gains we saw in Kentucky Derby television ratings this year.

What are the two or three key story lines the sport will push all year to grow its audience?

Our NTRA Communications team in New York City and the America’s Best Racing initiative work in tandem with racetracks to elevate our stars through increased mainstream media and social media coverage. Our primary focus is on jockeys like Rosie Napravnik, Kevin Krigger, Gary Stevens and Joel Rosario. Trainers like Shug McGaughey, Doug O’Neill, Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher. And, of course, our equine stars like Orb, Animal Kingdom and Wise Dan. I could go on, but we aren’t lacking for stars and personalities whether they be human or of the four-legged variety.  Something new this year will be the ABRV Tour  and America’s Best Race Days at destination racetracks which will offer fans an exciting and affordable sports/entertainment option.  The key here is that the live experience at a big race day event needs to include multiple touch-points for fans including fashion, celebrity, lifestyle, gambling, and racing, just to name a few.

The Breeder’s Cup has a new CMO after the position was vacant, how will filling that spot leverage the sport better?

It will be interesting to watch the Breeders’ Cup develop a new marketing strategy around the new CMO Drew Scheinman. The success of the Breeders’ Cup event is critical to the second half of our annual racing calendar, from late June to early November.  It is too soon to tell just exactly what that strategy might entail, but it is certain to be an exciting time for the Breeders’ Cup event and for racing in general.  We look forward to seeing those plans as they are rolled out.

Despite the success of elite racing, many tracks are still struggling. How does the NTRA deal with the ever-changing and very fickle world of large spectator sports participation these days?

Competition for the sports, gambling and entertainment dollar is greater than ever. The NTRA does its part by focusing nationally on promotion of our biggest events and stars. Our marquee events represent the best opportunities to introduce new people to the wonderful sport of the Thoroughbred racing and handicapping. Nonetheless, 80- 90% of wagering on Thoroughbred racing occurs at locations remote from the live event via simulcasting and ADW.  Most of the simulcasting occurs at other racetracks around the country. Events like the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders’ Cup World Championships are not only big, profitable events at the live venue but also at smaller racetracks and off track facilities throughout North America whose biggest days often coincide with racing’s big events. Thus, promotion of Thoroughbred racing’s big events helps everyone in the business, regardless of the size of the track or the strength of its racing product.

YUM Brands took an interesting position at the Kentucky Derby, will we see more brands aggressively getting involved in large audience events like the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup?

YUM and industry partners like John Deere, Sherwin-Williams, Grey Goose, Emirates and Dodge have paved the way for other major brands who are considering entry into Thoroughbred racing. The “Snickers” candy bar brand recently stepped forward to sponsor the up-and-coming jockey, Rosie Napravnik, who was recently featured on “60 Minutes”.  Longines sponsored this year’s Kentucky Oaks. More and more brands are considering partnering with Thoroughbred racing because we offer not only hospitality opportunities at world class venues but also the chance to co-brand with a sport that has world-wide popularity.  We offer activation opportunities with access to a loyal fan base and an industry that is a multi-billion agribusiness in the U.S. alone.  More and more savvy marketers are realizing our potential every day.

Will we see more branding on horses, ala NASCAR?

I do not think we will see advertising or bumper stickers on Thoroughbreds any time in the near future. However, it seems like all sports and businesses, including the Thoroughbred industry, are looking for ways to generate additional revenue through new income streams. In the past year, the NBA considered selling advertising on team jerseys. It’s commonplace among sports in Europe and other parts of the world. I think we’ll see more advertising on jockey pants and perhaps a softening of the rules regarding advertising on owner silks in the future.

What are the biggest concerns for you with the sport, and what are the biggest opportunities?

There are huge expenses tied to the conduct of Thoroughbred racing on almost every level. It is a highly labor intensive industry, which makes it vulnerable to competition but also an extremely desirous, billion dollar agribusiness. There are also serious safety and integrity concerns that require constant attention from horse owners, trainers, racetracks and regulators. Our ability to credibly address these critical safety and integrity issues will define our future success as a sport.   At the same time, our sport is incredibly resilient. Thoroughbred racing is America’s oldest sport, one with world-wide appeal. As I said earlier, we are tailor-maid for the Internet age which from just about any vantage point, is a pretty good position to be in.

 

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