Much of the recent talk in the horse racing industry centers on ways to expand the reach of the sport in order to compete with other forms of entertainment and gambling. Whether it's expanded television coverage, new wagers, improvements in social media, web presence, or a host of other ideas, the majority of the industry recognizes the need to implement new technology wherever it can. This becomes even more important when we talk in terms of attracting a more diverse group of fans and players, specifically the younger demographic.
This is the first in a series of posts designed to look at the current use of technology within the horse racing industry. The overall goal of the series is to identify areas where racing is doing a good job of embracing available technology, as well as those areas that need improvements. I'll be taking a subjective view of each category rather than an objective one. In other words, I'm going to look at each area in terms of my personal preferences and tastes, how I use the available technologies for following the sport, and the things that I'd like to see improved upon in the future. The websites and applications that I'll be singling out are simply the ones that I gravitate towards. It is expected that these will be both similar and different to those that you rely on.
Below is a snapshot of the topics I intend to cover over the next five weeks:
Part 1: Racing Websites
Part 2: Mobile Applications
Part 3: Statistics and Data
Part 4: Facebook and Twitter
Part 5: Television, Radio, Video, and Podcasting
We'll start our series with an examination of horse racing-centric websites, an area that I think the industry has done a good job developing. I'd classify racing related websites into three categories: industry sites, track specific, and player sites/blogs. The industry sties are your gold standard news, information and data centers, like the Daily Racing Form, Brisnet, and Equibase, just to name a few. Track specific sites are run by individual racing associations or tracks (like Keeneland, NYRA, or Churchill Downs, Inc.). And finally, player sites/blogs refer to a wide swath of websites from individual blogs written by racing fans to handicapping forums, like Horse Racing Nation and Pace Advantage, or this site.
The standard industry websites are well-known to most, if not all, players. the Daily Racing Form, Equibase, Brisnet, BloodHorse, Thoroughbred Times; there are many sites that do an excellent job of providing good, reliable information to fans and gamblers alike. Most of these sites are great at providing news stories, results, stakes replays, and an assortment of data, some for free and some by way of subscription.
When I think of ways that the industry websites could improve I find myself focusing on two areas, one that I'll get into more later and one that I'll discuss now. The first area is optimization of websites for mobile applications; I'll write more about that in the aptly named Part 2: Mobile Applications. The other area is presentation of information and data. of which I'll use the example of the listing/display of graded stakes races during the calendar year.
The racing calendars at most sites are laid out poorly and in a manner that almost makes you not even want to sift through the information, in my opinion. At the DRF, you get a month-by-month calendar that is cleaner than some of the other sites, but is still a bit of a nightmare to naviagate. There's no ability to filter by grade, track, distance, etc., and the calendar usually only provides information for a month or two in advance, at most.
Over a the Thoroughbred Times, we get a page which combines the calender style of the DRF, and a list at the bottom. Again, it's very cumbersome to search for track or grade specific events and there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to the organization. I like that the TTimes site includes Group races from Europe (that's a big bonus for me), but it's still a chore to sift through the races.
The stakes calendar at the BloodHorse is just as messy as the one at TTimes, but at least the print is a little bit bigger and there is some filtering available. The Equibase Yearbook might be the best of the bunch in terms of looking back at races but it leaves something to be desired when trying to look ahead.
What I'd love to see some of these websites do is arrange their stakes calendar and results like The Thoroughbred Report website, a site where the user can search by year, month, track, grade... you name it. It's easy to use and the information is presented much better than it is at other websites. The simplicity of this graded stakes database is why I refer to this website frequently throughout the year.
The overall goal of any racing website, regardless of whether it's publishing results, entries, news, or anything else, should be presenting the greatest amount of data in the most simplistic and efficient way as possible. Make it easy for players to find the data they need, the replays they want to watch, or the results they want to analyze. A great deal of handicapping is maximizing the time it takes to go through the process. As a consequence, I believe players will gravitate to those websites where they can easily find the information they want in a clean, easy to digest presentation.
Almost every major and minor racetrack in North America has some kind of website, although they vary greatly in their usefulness. A standard track site should provide at least the following minimum functionality:
Current Meet Statistics
Wagering FAQ (Bets offered, rules, takeout, etc.)
Wagering Locations (OTBs/ADWs, etc.)
Those are the basics. If a track isn't providing that information to its customers it might as well shut down the site because it's borderline useless. Almost all of the current track websites will provide that information, with many linking to Equibase for all of their Entry/Result data (which is a good way to keep things standardized). The notable exception is with race replays; many tracks still don't provide an easy way for players to view past races for free.
Keeneland and Tampa Bay Downs provide their race replays right on their website without any cost to the player, while tracks owned by CDN, Inc. (Churchill Downs, Arlington, Calder, Fair Grounds) also provide on-site replays. Other tracks, like Emerald Downs, provide a link to a 3rd party site where players can view replays without a charge. But some sites, including Gulfstream, don't provide free replays, which is a major drawback. Like NYRA and Emerald Downs, Gulfstream links to RaceReplays.com for all of their past races. Unlike NYRA and Emerald, those replays are not provided for free (at least from what I can tell by perusing their website). In a sport reliant on gambling dollars, churn, and tight margins, making your players spend more money in order to handicap your product is a bad thing. Yes, it adds costs to the track, but race replays are a valuable service to many players.
Personally, I would rank Keeneland at the top of all track-specific websites on the internet due to the overall completeness and functionality. Not only does Keeneland provide all of the basics, but they give you added features such as detailed statistics on all of the winners since the implementation of Polytrack, workouts and clocker comments during the Spring and Fall meets, video features, and a ton of handicapping analysis and insights. It's really the best track website out there right now. Plus they have a fantastic searchable database of their sales, for those into the bloodstock side of the game.
Tampa Bay Downs and Woodbine also provide excellent websites, with Woodbine providing one of the best video offerings of any track on the web. The Woodbine video page provides race replays, Pick 4 video previews, interviews, and stakes features.
Track websites have taken a very nice leap forward over the past few years with most getting on board in providing data and analysis directly to their players. In general, there really isn't a ton that I feel tracks are leaving on the table with their websites. Sure, there are some added features that some provide that a really nice, but track websites are doing well to keep up with ever-changing technology.
If you've spent any time surfing the internet for horse racing related websites ou know that there are some really good player-created sits/blogs to read. Whether you are reading pedigree insights from Sid Fernando, the musings of a trio of New York-based writers at Brooklyn Backstretch, EquiSpace, and Left At The Gate, or the California-based players at Giving My Ten Cents and Handicappers Corner, there is no shortage of people in the internet writing about horse racing. I could list many, many more excellent player sites and blogs, all with a unique voice and perspective on the game.
In terms of embracing the proliferation of the internet into all aspects of our lives, players have really driven the migration of racing content to the web. Tracks and industry entities have had to step up their presence on the web because that's where the action is taking place. The "new media" in racing - an amalgamation old print, television and radio media combined with consumers and customers on the internet - is a key driver in connecting with today's horseplayer to the sport.
The Bottom Line
Overall, I think the racing industry has done a good job of embracing the internet and providing valuable content to its customers. Most of the things that I think need improving are, in the big scheme of thing, minor quibbles. The most improtant fact, I think, is that it appears that the majority of people in the industry understand how important it is to fully utilize the internet in order to reach fans. That's not necessarily the case with some of the other new technologies.
Next week: Part 2: Mobile Applications