It's 7:45 a.m.
Since I am not much of a coffee drinker, I am suffering through the morning wake-up process. Most days this would take some time, but today is Preakness day. Realizing that I will be spending the late morning and entire afternoon in the Pimlico infield counteracts my drowsiness to the point of giddiness by the time we hit Route 83.
I am not jumping out of my skin with excitement with visions of running across the tops of portable restrooms or jamming to Maroon 5 for that matter. In fact, I will be working.
Working the middle jewel of the Triple Crown is something I look forward to every spring. Each year since 2010, I have landed at BWI airport the third weekend in May for several rewarding experiences. Having previously worked for a racetrack in the Chicago area, I have some familiarity with the sport and what makes it great. At the same time, I have seen the struggles and detriments of what the industry is facing. The negatives, at least in perception, are beginning to outweigh the positives.
For most people, their only experience with the infield has been the negative press given to the debauchery and sophomoric acts of a few. Fortunately for me, I stand in a location that sees a completely different view. By 9:30 a.m., the crowd files in at a rapid pace and my first “customer”, a 29-year-old woman from Raleigh , North Carolina, enters the tent. I reach into the cooler and I pull out a bottle of water and head over to engage her.
She asks, "So, I've never bet before, can you teach me what to do?"
I respond with a smile, "That's what I am here for."
For the record, the Maryland Jockey Club hires my comrades and me to educate interested parties in the infield. Many are lost, but crave knowledge.
“What do all the numbers in the program mean?”
“How do I bet?”
My job is to show them the light—to teach what makes a horse race a horse race, to stop them from betting against themselves, and provide the tools to succeed by helping them construct tickets that offer the best chance to win.
Once they see how simple the methods are, and have some success, they want to play again.
Based upon the number of "horse racing is dead" and "horse racing is irrelevant" conversations heard and newspaper articles read over the previous years, I continue to be surprised every Preakness day, for if you believed the pundits, writers and racing lifers, what would be the point of such a task? What would be the point of even attempting to teach 18- to 35-year-olds the sport of horse racing?
Three years ago, our team was given an 8x8 tent equipped with a dry-erase board and a 20-inch television monitor to try what many would believe was a pointless experiment—to see if we could prove the general consensus wrong. Flash forward to 2012. Our tent is 12 times larger and includes a stage, picnic tables, a sound system, multiple dry-erase boards, two 60-inch flat-screen monitors and a staff of six.
Each year, the popularity of our tent grows so much that the Maryland Jockey Club continues to expand it. From my point of view, their dedication to the fan education area, without question, is completely justifiable. Our tent is next to the wagering pavilion and that area’s handle has increased significantly in the three years we’ve been there.
How could such an increase happen when the infield is predominantly young kids? Young kids don't care right? I mean, horse racing, after all is dead—or so I am told.
After teaching my new friend from Raleigh how to make a win, place and show bet, I moved on to a gentleman a few years younger than me. He wanted to "swing for the fences and try and make a grand with $100" so I taught him pick three and pick four concepts and walked him to the betting window to ensure he placed the bet correctly.
A short time later, I spoke with a group of 20 just-out-of-college buddies who pooled together $1,000 to play Pimlico’s guaranteed pick five. They went 4x4x4x4x4 (four horses selected in each race) and lost in the second leg. This did not deter them. They stayed for every single race and continued to learn.
As the day continued, I came across risk takers, sorority girls, young professionals and people from all walks of life. With each race, our tent filled. Every person I taught stuck around to bet the next race and get my take. Our cameraman recorded testimonials from people who had never bet before because they were "too intimidated" or they "just didn’t know what to do." This nervousness or lack of confidence in knowing the sport is what has kept future customers from engaging in the game.
I was approached by people with open minds, who were eager to learn and just wanted to have fun. For some, they may have placed an uneducated bet, lost and never come back. In this scenario, the horse racing industry would have failed them. The future of our sport will not be guaranteed by adding casinos or slot machines; we must make a concerted effort to connect with and instill confidence in those wanting to participate in our product.
As the Preakness approached, the tent became so crowded you couldn’t move. New fans bet their winnings or reached into their pockets for more to have a chance at being right. All of my “students” crowded around me like in previous years, picking my brain and asking for guidance to craft tickets.
The race went off, the crowd cheered and it seemed everyone had I'll Have Another. Cheerful high fives were given as tickets were cashed and hugs and handshakes from my new-found friends were given, as we parted ways. I even added a few Twitter and Facebook followers. This day, like every other year, was a huge success.
I have learned many things from my experiences in the Wagering 101 tent. First and foremost, I learned that horse racing as an industry has a choice—they can either teach the next generation of horse racing fans or they can put an end date on the sport.
I have learned that there are young adults who find horse racing fascinating. They find the puzzle of figuring out the winner a challenge worth taking.
I have found that Mike Gathagan, vice president of communication for Maryland Jockey Club, and the MJC "get it." They understand that without a new generation of interested race fans, the Preakness will cease to exist.
I refuse to believe in an end date to any job, any track or any race. As ambassadors for our industry, we have a real opportunity to make our own destiny. We can lounge around in the press box, paddock or stakes barn party and laugh and giggle, or we can put on our hard hats and do what this industry needed to do 30 years ago. We can sit on our hands and beg for handouts from the state or we can stand up, get into the trenches and actually do something for ourselves.
Every year around this time, we see an increase in news articles and sound bites on mainstream television as the Triple Crown takes center stage. Writers and pundits will discuss the potential of history being made while looming in the shadows is the ignorance of the existence of a real threat to the longevity of our industry. Many will flock to their local track to watch the Belmont Stakes, but how many will leave with a better understanding of what they just saw.
I challenge you, the reader, the placing judge, the jockey, the marketing rep, general manager or writer to reach out to your local track and push for a true fan education program. If the amount of time, money and effort toward obtaining slot machines or subsidies was spent on the creation of new race fans, stories like the recent New York Times series might never have made print.
Whatever major race you cover, whatever track you call home, from wherever you sit, send an e-mail, a text or a tweet and make a connection to have your voice heard. If we want it to thrive into the future, we need to create interest in the sport, and teach those who want to learn.
We can begin a trend of fan creation and thus begin the preservation of something we all have a passion and love for. Horse racing is a sport, a legacy and a tradition worth preserving.
At least I think so.