This piece was first published in Parade magazine.
Risks and hazards. Two apparently similar words, in that the outcomes are similar, but with substantially different meanings.
A risk is an event that is possible, but unpredictable, like the car that comes crashing off the street, through the large window, and into a restaurant, where it critically injures unsuspecting diners.
A hazard is the same restaurant, where uncooked ingredients are not kept in the cold chain and kitchen hygiene is poor, with the result that diners get food poisoning. Hazard is the rusty chain links on the playground swing, the faulty brakes on the bus transporting 80 passengers. You get the picture.
Horse racing is facing an uncertain future, which requires the assessment of a variety of risks. However, the industry also faces substantial hazards. The first, as raised by Brian Kantor at the Investec Summerhill conference, is one of insider trading. I’m not avoiding the issue, but I’d rather park that discussion for another time. The second, the subject under discussion here, involves the industry’s digital preparedness.
By digital, I mean all online activity, whether it is on websites, social media or apps. It includes communication, commercial transactions, and research.
By every measurement possible – and the beauty of digital is how measurable everything is – anything to do with digital is growing. Take your pick of online shopping, social media, or YouTube videos, not to mention the number of mobile phones with internet capability. Even if you aren’t on Twitter, Facebook, or buying your groceries online, you can be fairly certain that almost every person under the age of 30 is.
For the next waves of consumers, if it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist. Not being digitally active in a meaningful way is like making the decision that you’re getting ready to close your business.
It is a common lament that horse racing has suffered from diminished mainstream media coverage (i.e. newspapers, television and radio). Guess what, digital gives us the opportunity of delivering a richer experience for our customers, with a deeper level of engagement. Plus, it’s almost instant, and dissemination is effectively free, once the platform/channel has been established. The value of not just creating a good flow of information, but owning the media channel as well, is enormous.
Instead of a static list of races and runners, newspaper style, you can have a dynamic system that allows for deeper form study. You can have videos of past races, and people can bet directly off the platform. Plus, because the number of column inches allowed in the newspaper’s budget does not constrain you, there is hardly any limitation on the amount of information or interpretation you can deliver. With a little extra coding, you can write wizards that enable punters to implement their own strategies or models. And, this can all be delivered via a smart phone app.
Combine this with social media tools, like Twitter, and you have a very powerful, real-time communication platform. Every race gives opportunities for generating content for ‘the stream’. Other social media tools, like Facebook and Instagram, are tailor made for the ‘faces-at-the-races’, social and glamour components of a race day.
YouTube is already in its ninth year. Considering its relative maturity, its growth rate is extraordinary. The company announced recently that its users are now watching 6 billion hours of video every month, up from 4 billion a year ago. That is a 50% leap, which is probably part of the reason why YouTube has set up its own professional production studios in Los Angeles to enable content producers do an even better job. So, hard on the heels of the cable networks taking on Hollywood, YouTube is doing the same. The bottom line: people love consuming video.
The beauty is that it’s very easy for horse racing operators to be active in video, with their own ‘channels’. With all that action content being generated every day, it’s a no-brainer. The other opportunity is for short, sharp previews and reviews. I’m talking about 60 seconds, maximum, in which a race is discussed, or an insightful post-race interview is delivered. Apart from the fact that Tellytrack sits on a subscription service and is therefore limited in its reach, one has to watch it all day to catch the gems. A well-curated YouTube channel would enable people to remain in touch and informed by dipping into the source for just a few minutes per day.
Social media offers additional opportunities, beyond telling punters about last-minute jockey changes or overweight declarations. I’ll acknowledge that a Twitter account in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing. But, what it could do is to enable ‘relationships’ to be formed with jockeys, who are a huge untapped opportunity for celebrity. Trainers fall into a similar bracket.
Yes, celebrity may well be superficial, but it’s a fact of life on the marketing landscape. Celebrity sells.
Horses can be celebrities – look at Frankel and Black Caviar – but they’re around for a couple of years and then they retire. Jockeys are superb athletes, who can perform at the highest level for decades (golfers do something similar, although they generally carry a lot more condition!).
Digital is clearly a solution I’m passionate about. Even if you think it is an exaggeration to say that failing to embrace digital would be hazardous for the future of the horse racing industry, surely you agree what huge opportunities it brings?