"The core values of racing are still powerful, but we're losing the battle for new bettors and new fans. Serious intervention is required to stabilize the fan base and position the industry to resume growth." So begins the summary of a 2011 report commissioned by The Jockey Club on the state of the Thoroughbred racing industry.
With only 22 percent of the public expressing a positive impression of the industry, the report called for new growth strategies. One of those strategies is being led by Price Bell of Mill Ridge Farm and Nicoma Bloodstock. He is president of the not-for-profit organization Horse Country, recently established to offer equine tourism experiences. Anne Sabatino Hardy, Horse Country's executive director, talked with Tom Martin.
Martin: That Jockey Club Report delivered pretty bad news when it came out a few years ago. It predicted a 25 percent decline in the racing handle in a decade's time, 27 percent of tracks shutting down, a 50 percent increase in owner losses. How was that received in the Thoroughbred industry?
Sabatino Hardy: I don't think that anyone would have said that there was a lot of surprise at some of the findings, but perhaps the depth of those findings and what the future looked like if action wasn't taken.
Martin: So strategies grew out of this, among them the idea of establishing Horse Country Inc., correct?
Sabatino Hardy: That's really the genesis of where what we now call Horse Country came from. Brutus Clay from Runnymede Farm wrote a white paper describing the need for the industry to focus more on selling experiences and to help people find a way to connect with the sport. At the same time, Price Bell and his father, Headley, were also working on a similar initiative, and they joined to work together on what has eventually become Horse Country.
Martin: Lexington is ringed by these fabulous horse farms, and it's always a great experience to drive out and see them. But there has been the perception that that's as far as it goes. You're not welcome into the farm. Is that changing?
Sabatino Hardy: This is most certainly a signal that the gates are opening and that these farms and clinics that are members of Horse Country are excited to welcome guests and do their part in developing fans and telling the stories.
Martin: What kind of planning is in the works right now in terms of tourism? What sorts of experiences are you thinking of?
Sabatino Hardy: We're planning really hard with all of our 33 members to make sure that when they welcome folks to their locations that they're prepared to offer a great experience; for it to be a level of hospitality and storytelling that makes for an authentic and exciting experience that connects people emotionally with those locations.
When Horse Country was early in its formation, the board hired the Disney Institute to come and consult and tell us if we have a product here, and how can we make sure that we deliver it well to those guests that will be visiting us. Disney's resounding response was you have a tremendous product and all you need to do is get your stories together and get out of the way, essentially. Make sure that you prioritize hosting people and telling the stories in this authentic farm or clinic situation, and make sure that they have a really great time when they come. So we're preparing our members with training opportunities. We're building a website that will provide central booking for the public so that they can access the tour that's best for them in a centralized way, whether it's finding a single farm that they would like to visit or guided tour.
Martin: This is a big change, isn't it? Yet there are very practical, pragmatic reasons that horse farms have not been open to throngs of people. They raise Thoroughbreds, which are very sensitive creatures. What are the farm owners and managers saying about how that will be managed and balanced?
Sabatino Hardy: The first priority that these folks have is to run very highly operational farms that care for very expensive and particular charges in our Thoroughbred horses. They are very strongly committed to making sure that the fans have a wonderful experience. But of course we have to make sure that it's balanced with the demands of a working farm. There are lots of things moving from hour to hour on any given farm, and we want them to have the opportunity to control when and how and how many people visit them so that we can ensure that there's a really great experience for those who are there. So that we can give them the tools to manage it in a way that doesn't make them want to shut down again.
Martin: What are you hearing from the farms? What sorts of accommodations are they willing to make?
Sabatino Hardy: They're still figuring some of those things out. One thing that makes a huge difference about Horse Country compared with some of the things that you may have seen in the past is that this was the idea of the farm owners and breeders, and it's not something that they've been asked to buy into. They really came to this idea on their own, and they have owned it and they have been excited about it.
So it's not so much that they're being told that they have to make all these adjustments. They're excited about it and they're still learning the ways that they'll have to adjust to everything from where they're going to host people to what happens if it's raining? Do they want to put up memorabilia? Do they want to find ways that they can provide tactile experiences for people? What can they touch and what can they see and smell?
Those are all changes that they're thinking of making. When Disney came in, one of the things that they said very clearly was, 'Don't spend a million dollars building a visitor center because you will kill the essence of your authenticity. Go and bring people out here and let them have a real farm experience. Tell them to bring a raincoat or tell them to bring their wellies (rain boots), but let them be on a farm and be in the midst of this agriculture and horsemanship and everything that really makes for life on the farm. Because that authenticity is what will connect people to the animal and to the personalities and the stories.
Martin: Getting back to that Jockey Club report, it found that the average age of a horse racing fan today is 51 — older than the averages for football, for basketball, for baseball. So is there a hope that opening farms to tourists and families in particular might spark interest among younger demographics?
Sabatino Hardy: We hope people will come here and that they'll bring their children, their nieces and nephews and grandchildren so that there will be developed a love of the sport, a love of the animal and a love of Kentucky from the early age.
Martin: We have a major Thoroughbred industry event coming up later this month. You're launching Horse Country next spring, but will the organization play a role in the Breeder's Cup festivities?
Sabatino Hardy: We're very excited to offer horse farm tours at several of our member locations — 23, as a matter of fact — through the Breeder's Cup Festival. This is going to be a little preview of what we will offer in the future. We're going to be opening up these locations Oct. 25 through 28, and we're going to be talking all about the Breeder's Cup connections. You're going to hear from the owners and breeders. You're going to get to meet the staffs that often hand-raise and train and bring up these great athletes. You're going to get to see where they live and even meet some of the siblings, dams and sires.
Martin: How can I sign up for a tour?
Sabatino Hardy: You can visit Breederscupfestival.com and then click on "events" and "horse farm tours." There are about 77 different events that you can choose from. Each tour is either a morning session or an afternoon session and you'll be taken from the Red Mile Round Barn to two different locations where you'll be hosted by our members and we'll have a little gift bag for you.
We will take care of all transportation and show you a really good time. and hopefully you'll share a little bit more about the Breeder's Cup and why it's so special.