Keeneland AssociationNick Nicholson - President & CEO
Ogden Mills Phipps: Nick Nicholson is next. He needs no introduction to many of you.
Nick Nicholson: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and good morning. I think the way Woodbine is reinvesting in our industry is a shining example to all of us. We will watch the development of Woodbine Live! certainly with interest and our very best wishes for success on that.
There is no question that there are so many challenges to our sport, challenges that we should not sugar coat and cannot ignore. Things like how we are dealing with the economy, our antiquated tote system, a lack of uniform regulations throughout the states, drug rules and drug testing standards, and the list just goes on and on and on...the never ending quest for safety of our human and equine athletes. There’s no bottom to it.
Dealing with these types of issues is not from a lack of discussion — no question about that. Nor is it a lack of opinions. By nature, our industry draws successful people with strong opinions and sometimes these strong opinions impede cooperation and progress.
We could form a task force on all the tasks forces we’ve formed over the years to address the problems in the industry.
But I’m sure we all agree that we should remain very attentive to all of these issues. We should not do so by being obsessive about them though. We should deal with them openly and honestly. Let’s not downplay our problems. But, at the same time, let’s not lose sight of what is great about our sport.
Coming to Saratoga or to Del Mar is like a wonderful tonic; for me there’s just no better day. Many of you in this room have the privilege of owning a Thoroughbred so you know the unique thrill that comes with owning a Thoroughbred — it’s the same thrill that mirrors owning a sports franchise. While other sports have only a handful of owners — we have thousands.
Our sport is intriguing. It’s intellectually stimulating. It’s exciting. Packaged right and presented right, it appeals to the modern, and yes, dare I say it, young fans because we can give them what they like — compelling entertainment that is data driven and packaged around the intellectual challenge of picking a winner.
The key is presenting it in a way that appeals to them. But you cannot fool them — they’re smart — and there are some fundamental thresholds for them that you must be up front with them about; issues such as wagering integrity — it’s got to be an honest game — and safety of our athletes.
So, it’s against that backdrop — one of both challenge and opportunity — that let’s examine a few things that we’re doing at Keeneland to try and capture the excitement and get fans more involved. Sometimes our efforts work. Sometimes they don’t. If they don’t work, we will just keep trying. Being a laboratory for the industry is an essential part of our corporate mission.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the efforts we’re trying to put forth at Keeneland.
Our experience has been that folks who attend the races also attend football, basketball, and baseball games. And what do they experience when they go there? Super-sized entertainment. From the atmosphere to state-of-the-art video boards, they are providing a complete entertainment experience.
So do the broadcast networks like NBC and ESPN, which is now offering some sports in 3-D.
That’s why Keeneland looked outside of horse racing for ideas about how to engage our fans. And that’s why seven years ago we decided to specifically focus on our broadcast products. That meant going high definition, which was a pretty big leap because no one else in racing was doing it and it is a big investment. But, we had to do it because we could see that every other major sport was quickly headed in that direction.
To do all of these things we wanted to do with high definition, we had to plan incrementally. It was not feasible to do it in one fell swoop. It began with the purchase of a few high def cameras and then we tried to invest some in high-def infrastructure each year.
We explored new and interesting camera angles — something that might help the players see racing from a different perspective. We rebuilt our graphics so that the players could see more at a glance.
During the track renovation in 2006, we seized on the chance to take a major leap forward by piggybacking some broadcast improvements with some of the other renovation efforts. The best example of what we did was the installations of both Trakus and a new tote board.
With the Trakus project, we were able to save a great deal of money because we installed the necessary cabling while the track was being installed.
For those of you who are not familiar, Trakus uses a wireless radio frequency system with small radio antennas positioned around the racetrack. Ours has 17 antennae located on the perimeter of the track but if you didn’t know what to look for, you would not even notice them. The system reads data transmitted at various points of call using radio tags located inside a pocket in each horse’s saddle towel. The tags weigh less than 2 ounces and are about the size of a credit card.
We also installed a state-of-the-art Dactronics Pro Star 23 millimeter LED video display that has 2,264 individual tiles that span across five screens that are all capable of high definition full-motion video.
And, we started to notice something. The fans liked it. In fact, they loved it. It is amazing how much the Trakus technology combined with the new tote board has added to our fan experience, especially the full running order.
Interestingly, when I observe fans watching a race at Keeneland now, many are following the tote board instead of the actual race. Trakus gives our fans — casual and experienced alike — the chance to get engaged early on in our race, to know what is going on with their horse, and to see it accurately in a way that simply is not possible with traditional signals or a sweeping pan shot. For horseplayers and horsemen, Trakus also provides a wealth of information about each horse in the race that is available on our website.
Now, let’s take a look at this Trakus chart from the Breeders’ Futurity in October 2006.
It shows both cumulative and segmented information about the race. It gives the full running order, average miles per hour per horse, how many feet off the rail they traveled, how much ground they covered and much more.
From a handicapping perspective this is amazing information. You can see that Street Sense ran 48 feet further than Circular Quay. Great information to have a few weeks later when Street Sense went on to win the Breeders Cup Juvenile over Circular Quay.
Trakus can help identify horses that might benefit from additional distance or rebound from a loss the next time out. With the closing fractions for each horse, you can clearly see who wants to stretch out a bit in distance the next time, and who won’t benefit from added distance. And, the highly valuable ground-loss calculations of Trakus help uncover some great long shots.
We’re huge fans of Trakus at Keeneland, but we know that for fans to receive the total benefits of it, it is necessary for other track to adopt this type of system as well. And we hope they do.
Another aspect of Keeneland’s fan engagement strategy is through social media. You may have heard of social media. You may even participate in it. If you have children or grandchildren, you can be assured that they are using it.
It’s the way our fans are used to communicating, so whether we want to or not, we have to be fluent in their social media languages. My biggest head scratcher about social media is not should we use it or how to use it, but how to quantify it. Turns out, it isn’t that easy. All this social media stuff is a bit more stealth.
Right now, Keeneland has more than 60,000 fans on Facebook. All of those people chose to be friends, if you will, with Keeneland and engage in some sort of dialogue. It seems to be especially popular with our casual racing fans.
Twitter, on the other hand, seems to draw the hard core racing and sales followers. Twitter comes in short bursts of information, or tweets as they are called. It’s how we find out, for instance, what our basketball coach at the University of Kentucky had for breakfast today. Amazing how much information you can communicate in just 140 characters.
However, as we talk about engaging fans — whether it be at the track or via the Internet — it isn’t all about the future. Racing has such a rich history that can be just as powerful as all of these new tools combined. In fact, sometimes you have to reach back into the past to help ensure your future. If racing’s strongest attribute is its heritage, then we should make it more readily available to our public.
The Keeneland Library has a treasure trove of wonderful stories just waiting to be relived for another generation. It is where Laura Hillenbrand met Seabiscuit and where Secretariat lives among the photos and the Daily Racing Form archives.
Keeneland took possession of the Daily Racing Form archives in 2001. Many of these are the sole-surviving copy. In an effort to save these precious archives we’ve partnered with the University of Kentucky to digitize that collection. So far, we’ve digitized Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup race day coverage through the years. That’s about 300,000 pages that have already been scanned and about 132,000 that are already available online for free. But it is only a fraction of the 8 million pages that still need to be digitized.
This is a project that is critically important to our industry. The challenge: it also is very expensive and a slow process. It takes time and money. So, please think about how you might be able to assist in keeping this project going or better yet, help us speed up the process.
The Keeneland Library also houses a number of other important collections, including photographic collections such as Charles Cooke and Burt Morgan. We’re also compiling archival video that can be used in the industry’s interests. We’re working with NYRA, the NTRA, the National Museum of Racing and others to help fill the role that NFL Films or Major League Baseball Productions play to chronicle their sport. [narrated video ends here]
That was from the 1973 Whitney. You’ll have to wait a little while to find out what happened that day. As you could tell on the two screens, one side was before the digitization and the improvement and the other side was after they’ve gone through that. This is a very exciting project that could reap benefits to the industry and be our version of ESPN Classic.
To be sure, we often just focus on what is wrong with our sport. Let’s not forget that we should also remember what is right and what is special about our sport.
It is as exciting and beautiful to watch a race today as it was 100 years ago.
It is filled with wonderful people and wonderful stories.
And most of all, and there’s no doubt about it, if we stay focused on entertaining the fan while keeping our animals and our participants central to all that we do, we’re bound to stay on the right track.
Thank you very much.Ogden Mills Phipps: Thank you, Nick.