Many people in the sport lament the lack of new owners coming into the business. After all, if people are unwilling to purchase horses to race, no matter how many horses are bred, we will continue to experience horse shortages. While decreasing race dates and the eventual right-sizing of the industry will help reduce the shortage of horses, we need new owners anyway. Just like the sport’s fan base, the ownership base is aging as well. We need new owners to replace those who are leaving the business out of attrition. Don’t forget, new owners are also a source of increased wagering as well as potential ambassadors for introducing potential fans to the sport.
Some may ask why we should attempt to attract new horse owners while the business is in a period of high uncertainty. First of all, like other businesses, horse racing does not have the luxury of addressing one issue at a time so while issues such as over capacity, takeout rates, integrity and others are being addressed, we need to keep working on the development of new owners. This is not to say we should lie to potential owners and tell them everything is wonderful. If asked, we need to be upfront. Yes there will be contraction, but we are not going away. We need to change the focus of what it means to be a horse owner.
The focus of horse ownership changed dramatically with the opening of the Meadowlands, not all for the good. While owners have always hoped to make a profit racing horses, a major component of horse ownership was sportsmanship for some, a hobby for others (it helped the IRS was more liberal regarding when a racehorse was a business investment versus a hobby). In other words, owning a racehorse was fun. Perhaps it was being too close to New York City, but with the early success of the Meadowlands, Wall Street came to harness racing, commoditizing the race horse. Fewer and fewer people bought race horses to have fun; the horse became an investment product to make money off of, changing the game forever (Ask trainers these days how easy it is to tell some owners their horse needs to be turned out. Not race a horse at two?). As a result, with things taking a change for the worse (for reasons I will not repeat here), owning a race horse as a pure business investment no longer makes sense, hence the dearth of new owners.
What is the solution to attract new owners to harness racing? Horse ownership needs to be de-commoditized; we need to return the emphasis on having fun, a hobby, sportsmanship, with the possibility of making money being the last selling point. Quite frankly, we have no choice but to change our focus. After all, the upcoming retrenchment facing horse racing is going to necessitate the change in focus. For once, we may as well get ahead of the curve instead of trying to catch up.
Now that we have a ‘new’ angle to promote horse ownership, what can be done to help encourage others to take the plunge into the world of horse ownership? I will discuss some options in another blog entry shortly. Suffice it to say, everyone needs to pitch in and help.