The centerpiece of The Jockey Club's $5 million marketing campaign to attract more young fans to Thoroughbred racing rolled into Lexington this week.
A brightly painted hospitality bus with six horse-racing "ambassadors" between ages 22 and 27 is on a national tour. The tour began in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and will end in November at the Breeders' Cup outside Los Angeles.
Before leaving Lexington for Louisville on Sunday, the bus will be at The Red Mile on Wednesday for the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club meeting, at Thursday Night Live at Cheapside with some well-known jockeys, in the parking lot of Tin Roof on South Limestone on Friday night, and at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday.
Kip Cornett, president of Lexington-based Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, said the campaign grew out of a McKinsey & Co. study that The Jockey Club commissioned three years ago.
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It concluded that one of racing's biggest opportunities to increase the fan base was by doing more with special events, such as the Kentucky Derby. The research showed that 1.8 million people ages 18 to 34 watch the Derby on television, yet they pay little attention to Thoroughbred racing most of the year, Cornett said.
So the Jockey Club created a strategy similar to ESPN's GameDay events to reach young people. That included an advertising campaign; a website, Followhorseracing.com; and the bus with six ambassadors chosen from 150 videotaped applications.
Three of the ambassadors are from Central Kentucky; the others are from California, Georgia and Tennessee. All plan careers in the Thoroughbred industry and hope this gig will help them learn and make good contacts.
During the 17-stop bus tour, the ambassadors are trying to attract peers not only to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, but to the fashion, celebrity and party "lifestyle" surrounding it. They have given away a lot of souvenir jockey goggles and have registered hundreds of people for a contest to win an all-expenses-paid trip for four to the Derby.
The ambassadors identify young leaders and those with big social media followings in each city, take them to the local track and show them a good time in the hope that they will encourage their friends and social media followers to try racing.
The ambassadors also scout popular venues to take the bus — "places where people like us would hang out," said José Contreras of Long Beach, Calif., who said he "started reading the Daily Racing Form before I could read books."
"I've been surprised by how many people really want to talk to us," said Hallie Hardy of Frankfort, an equestrian for most of her life.
When the bus was at the Florida Derby last month, Chip McGaughey of Lexington said young Miami leaders were given behind-the-scenes tours of Gulfstream Park and showed how pari-mutuel betting works. Based on the initial efforts, the strategy seems to be working.
"Winning them some money definitely helps," McGaughey said.