On June 14, @KentuckyDerby posted on Twitter that they were finally making changes that I have wanted to see for years. It is true -- trying to follow the way that horses are selected for each Kentucky Derby is more like the Road to Hades instead of the 'Road to the Roses' for new horse racing fans.
I know the sentiment of this frustrated fan base because I have lived next to Churchill Downs for almost two decades -- and I try to explain horse racing to anyone that will listen. I have a strong connection to the Derby for a variety of reasons and have always wondered how so many people from the Bluegrass State could get away with not understanding Kentucky's top industry.
A couple of weeks after the announcement of a new strategy for selecting the horses that will appear in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, there is feedback online that goes beyond retweets and the average news story comment section. As it appears, the Kentucky Derby organizers are making a real effort to reach out to those struggling amateur fans that tend to give up on learning about horse racing.
Have these new changes for the Road to the 2013 Kentucky Derby worked -- or does the plan still need some improvement? I was surprised to see what others were saying and have an idea that could seal the deal.
Downs after Dark is working
In the past years, several articles have focused on horse racing industry management-types, like Michael Lamb, lamenting over the fact that their fan base is "graying." The same idea is reported by the Irish horse racing industry. However, it should be noted that the U.S. Jockey Club pointed out that the U.K.'s fixed odds system appears to be working (as opposed to our parimutuel one).
I am 35-years-old and have lived within 2 miles of Churchill Downs for almost two decades. From my perspective, I agree that most young people are not that involved with the racetrack. Although the athletic-minded students at the University of Louisville are nearby, you do not hear many twenty-somethings in the neighborhood talking about visiting the racetrack -- except for the annual Derby celebration.
Lately, that has been changing -- and one of the first promising signs that seems to embrace people my age is the 2012 Downs after Dark series that re-started in 2009. Suddenly, younger regulars I knew near Churchill Downs at Old Louisville's Mag Bar, Bardstown Road's Back Door, and Germantown's Nach Bar were talking about visiting the track for the first time in years. Their favorite part was dressing up and eating from the legendary Churchill Downs menus. A few said they placed their first bet and won a significant amount of cash.
Follow Horse Racing now has crucial improvements
The Jockey Club's first initiative to attract younger people was to set up FollowHorseRacing.com. Admittedly, this did help to organize the televised major events when it first appeared in April, 2012. On the other hand, the new website did not initially address the two main areas of confusion new horse racing fans tend to have: how to place bets or give new horse racing fans a way to understand how Kentucky Derby horses are selected from the race. Part of this problem has been fixed by adding Racing 101 tutorials to the website.
How Kentucky Derby Fever could ramp up in September
In my opinion, the new changes to the way Kentucky Derby horses are selected is going to help draw in fans. The streamlined way that races are presented (from September to May) allows newcomers to have a solid understanding of which races they should be watching. Despite this, I still feel there is one detail missing.
Sharing my feelings that there is something amiss is blogger Lenny at Equinometry.com. I find Lenny's views articulate -- but my thoughts are focused on the practicality of the local Louisville community. If I had my way, I would insist that Churchill Downs needs to meet young people in the places they are commonly found -- their local watering holes.
Having Night at the Downs as a fixed Friday event could help Churchill Downs gain a standing with local bar customers. If they really wanted to step up their game, they could take their automated betting machines on the road when they visit local Louisville bars. Along with showing each week's Road to the 2013 Kentucky Derby race and explaining the next one, hiring educators (such as the Courier Journal's Eclipse Award winner Jenny Rees) to explain handicapping horse racing to guests would be a nice finishing touch.
Will the 2013 Kentucky Derby turn out to be a turning point in history? I certainly hope so. For other opinions from horse racing fans about the new Road to the Kentucky Derby, consult the Derby's Facebook discussion and fan feedback post.
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Maryam Louise is a longtime resident of the Bluegrass State and has lived in the shadows of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky over the past two decades. In addition to being a fan of horse racing, she has also had a chance to get to know jockeys, horse groomers, and betting clerks as an ESL instructor. Currently, she writes for KentuckyDerby.org and relies on her friends in the multiple facets of the equine industry for writing inspiration.