As someone who is rapidly losing hair quantity and color, I guess I'm getting to the point in life where this stuff starts to matter. Five, say 10, years ago, I probably wouldn't have been offended by comments critiquing the racing crowd for dipping nine of its 10 collective toes in the grave. But I have to wonder why an industry would bite -- dare I say "gum" -- the hand that feeds it?
It's almost like horse racing executives desperately want to date the prom queen while overlooking that great gal sitting at the next school desk.
Horse racing's ever-lasting and unsuccessful pursuit of being hip to young people continues today as its older core audience remains unappreciated and, to be honest, a laughingstock.
All this begs the question: What the heck's wrong with being older?
Recently, former sports writer and Hollywood penman David Israel, now serving as vice chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, told a panel of industry members gathered at the national racing symposium in Tucson, "The average age of our on-track customer is deceased, and the average age of our satellite customer is decomposed."
That's a terribly insensitive statement and a slap in the face of your core audience, even if dripped in intentional sarcasm to get a reaction. Israel himself is 59. Why is it at age 39 I have more appreciation for his peer group, one that is consistently supporting an industry that simultaneously is looking for someone else?
It's almost like horse racing executives desperately want to date the prom queen while overlooking that great gal sitting at the next school desk. Not everyone can date the prom queen. And not every industry is made for the 18 to 30 demographic. Sometimes you need to quit trying to be cool and look in the mirror. You might like what you see if you come to grips with it.
I'm the exception, not the rule. I began serious pursuits of horse racing when I still couldn't see over the track apron's fence. I ran 600 miles in stretch runs whipping myself with a rolled up program before I hit my 10th birthday. I occasionally hear stories from others who share my experience. But it doesn't happen this way for most people. In fact, hardly any.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
It wasn't the Eddie Rabbit or Oak Ridge Boys concerts, or Sugar Ray Leonard vs.Tommy Hearns pay-per-view fights or ski cap giveaways at the track that made me a horse racing fan. I still remember going to see them, as sidelights to the racing program. It was horse racing's excitement and the pursuit of picking winners that hooked me in. To that end, no modern-day microbrew festival or appearance by Beyonce is going to make much of a dent; let's just be honest.
But that's hardly a doom and gloom statement.
The racing customer is not dying off. In fact, it's living longer than ever. You have to make the large presumptive leap that all of these old racing fans who are dying have been racing fans since their childhood or 20s to think that racing fans are dying off. The fact of the matter is that re-cultivating new customers is not about robbing the cradle, it's about knowing where to start.
In an era where retirements are being pushed back later in life and American life expectancy has reached nearly 78 years old, horse racing ought to be positioning itself to take advantage of an actual influx of customers who are willing and interested in the product offered. The CDC reports people are expected to live an amazing 10 years longer today than those born in just 1950.
The idea of cultivating 18 to 30 year olds to become horse racing fans has been an expensive and exhaustive endeavor. Seriously, can anyone expect to be a customer of any recreational activity for 60 years, from the edge of teen status 'til death do us part? There are slews of successful industries that have a targeted age demographic, no matter how young or old that may be. People move into it, and people move out of it.
Put money into transportation to the track and engage groups from large retirement communities. It's what the casinos do.
The travel industry targets older Americans and is one of the key focal points of retirement for many, as well as those pre-retirees whose children are finally out of the house. Most racetracks are tremendous getaway chances in getaway towns and areas; so why not focus horse racing toward those travel-based outlets in print, television and, most importantly, the Internet?
Put money into transportation to the track and engage groups from large retirement communities. It's what the casinos do. But we're not talking about raiding the nursing homes, for Pete's sake. Meanwhile, focus new-fan advertising and promotion on things that would interest someone in their 40s, not 20s.
The 40-year-olds are nowhere near death's door and they are achievable. Statistics show that the highest-earning years for most workers are between ages 40 and 49. For the vast majority of 20-year-olds, they don't care to follow the slow pace and analytical nature of handicapping the horse races. And this comes from someone who actually was very engaged in the sport in his 20s, but couldn't attract a car full of friends to share the interest.
And consider that today's 20-year-olds are much further away from being financially secure than their predecessors. With longer stints in school for college and advanced degrees, and the piling up of student loans, studies show that record numbers are finding refuge living back home after graduation.
The focus belongs on the older crowd, while the courtship of the young should exist on a much smaller level. Imagine where the game might be if every dollar spent trying to lure the kids was spent on developing the 40-somethings? How many devoted fans might we have now in their 50s with more expendable income than at any point in life?
My Dad will retire in a few weeks and has been a racing fan for all of his adult existence, while working in the general public and having nothing to do with racing outside of being a fan and horseplayer. He passed the passion on to my brother and me. In some cases, it works that way. Some would say that my Dad is a guy at age 65 that no longer is a target for racetrack marketing executives.
But what's funny is here's a guy who can't program a VCR (they still have those?) and still likes to cash checks by hand, but he recently purchased a satellite dish so he could watch more races in retirement from home. I have no idea if he'll figure out the remote control or not, but I'm darned certain he's already making notes about horses to bet the next time he's at the track, and occasionally dialing up his phone betting account and getting in on some weeknight action. If miracles indeed never cease, he might even get on that crazy worldwide web someday and take in the action.
Folks my Dad's age are really the last to not be swept away by the Internet. Many of his peers did catch on later in life, while some like him remained on the outside looking in. But anyone a smidge younger has spent a good deal of the past 15-20 years on the web and utilizing its technologies and even social networking.
I've chatted live online this year with thousands of horse racing fans and am consistently impressed by how many of them are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. You would think a bunch of young kids would be pecking at the keyboard and socializing with fellow racing fans. But it's not that way -- even on the Internet -- and I can vouch for that with countless first-hand communications.
The truth of the matter is that the 40 to 50-year-old audience just might be the young pups of racing's customer base. And if that's the case, what's wrong with that? I turn 40 next year, and I suppose I, too, will fall off the map as a target.
With a life expectancy at 78 years and growing, I'd say any customer you can lure into your business plan for the next 28 to 38 years ought to be appealing enough to make some noise. Even if they have to turn up their hearing aids to enjoy it.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website Horseplayernow.com. You can e-mail him at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.