FORUM: HORSE RACING NEEDS MORE THAN A SLOGAN: NEW COVERAGE ON TV WILL HELP; AD CAMPAIGN NO SUBSTITUTE FOR LACK OF STARS

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A $20 million marketing campaign supported by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, an industrywide consortium of racetracks, is designed to put the crown back on the "sport of kings" and help racing reach a new demographic: the "Generation X" consumer, the 20-plus folks that for the most part have shunned the ponies for skateboarding and beach volleyball.

Former PGA of America top honcho Tim Smith has been anointed to help the sport cash a winning ticket.

`GO, BABY, GO'

Using "hyper" actress Lori Petty (I would have preferred Richard Petty), the campaign began a few months ago and is being aired on various broadcast and cable TV outlets. The commercials, from Merkley Newman Harty, New York, show Ms. Petty bouncing up and down at the track while straining her lungs shouting "Go, baby, go." Subtle, no. Confusing, maybe.

Slogans for sports have been employed before. The National Basketball Association's "I love this game" campaign is a recent example. But the NBA was not struggling to recapture a lost fan base. And slogans do not a sport make.

WHAT MAKES THE DERBY

Before this year's Kentucky Derby, the racing association's Mr. Smith wrote about the excitement of the derby and the celebs who show up-Jack Nicholson and so forth. But Mr. Smith should know the PGA became the success it is in part because of a Nicklaus not a Nicholson; and, later, due to a Tiger Woods.

Thoroughbred racing used to have that cachet-a Bill Shoemaker and an Eddie Arcaro. That is the $20 million challenge for Tim Smith and the NTRA.

Neil Cook, a former editor of Daily Racing Form and co-founder of Wire2Wire, said the commercial with Lori Petty didn't represent the racetrack experience. He contended horse racing must show it can appeal to every social group; not just Gen-Xers.

Racing created the Breeders' Cup race to give the sport a yearend championship day. It tried to create a "commissioner," but it didn't work and was dropped after just one year. For a while, jockey Julie Krone took racing and the sports world by storm and was a regular on David Letterman's show. And, for more than a decade, Thoroughbred Racing Communications has functioned as a media service responsible for a weekly newsletter and, for a time, a monthly TV show.

TV COVERAGE

The focus of the NTRA is to expand the appeal of horse racing to the general sports fan base. The sport took a major step toward reaching its goal with the recent announcement of increased TV coverage by both ABC and a new player, Fox Sports. ABC will add coverage of races leading up to the Triple Crown, and Fox will begin airing a series of races focusing on horses past 3 years of age that are not eligible for the Triple Crown. Such horses as Skip Away or Cigar would fit the bill.

The bottom line, however, is Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup TV ratings are on a downward spiral, and racing has been waiting 25 years for another Secretariat. The NTRA is a positive step. Racing is not dying when 80,000 fans show up as they did for the Belmont Stakes this year.

PRO WRESTLING CONNECTION

The NTRA has in its camp one Basil De Vito, formerly with the World Wrestling Federation. Is racing pro wrestling? No. Would it like to have the popularity of World Championship Wrestling and the WWF? Without question. Hey, Basil. Give Jay Leno a call and get him up on a horse. Then everyone can shout "Go, baby, go."

Mr. Viuker is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based sports business journalist.

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