Shannon Castagnola is an associate with the West Point Thoroughbreds ownership syndicate who fell in love with horses after working at Keeneland’s September yearling sale. She went to work in communications and client relations for Taylor Made Farm before taking the position with West Point, where she assists in hospitality and customer service for the syndicate’s many members.
What do you think the biggest challenges are facing the horse industry?
When you go to the racetrack, for example, and you go somewhere besides Saratoga, Keeneland, or Del Mar, it’s pretty much empty. Those are premier meets — they’re short, the purses are good. The top horses are going. The top trainers and the top riders are there because the money is good and it’s easy to pack those places in. When you go to another venue — for example, Arlington Park — you find it’s a beautiful facility. It’s a fantastic place to watch races; it’s easy to get around. However, if you go on Thursday, you’ve got the run of the place, basically.
I’m not sure if it’s the chicken or the egg; I think the biggest problem is that we’ve got a fan base that’s declining, and we kind of know that. We know that our core fans are an older demographic. The younger generation either hasn’t been exposed to or participated in horse racing, so we need to get them interested.
From there, some of our other problems need to be addressed. I think we’re trying to address issues with medication uniformity and keeping things transparent. Those are issues that are problems internally, that we think might have an effect on the people who might be coming to the racetrack.
I’m not sure our idea that there’s a perception of cheating in the sport, or that the animals aren’t being treated well, is correct, because it’s not necessarily keeping people from the track. We had an intense amount of very negative publicity going into the Kentucky Derby, however Churchill Downs experienced attendee and on-site wagering records at the 2012 Derby. So if these internal issues are so crippling, why did we have this huge number of people who were coming to the races? I don’t know that all those issues are core issues, although I do think we need to be responsible and take a look at them.
I feel like our core issue is that there are so many other entertainment venues for people. Horse racing is just something that needs to be promoted in a way that catches people’s attention. And what you hope is that you’ll get people who are in that younger demographic, and who in, say, 15 years, will get into the industry. You can’t get owners until you get interested people.
How do you envision this marketing issue being solved?
Well, there are certain things that we know. For me personally, car racing isn’t that exciting, however it’s grown in popularity by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Why is that? I think we kind of know some of the reasons. It’s the same cast of characters every single time. They spend years making their name and then continue on for years racing. They build a name, they build a following, and they’re able to continue that following. (Horse racing) doesn’t have that opportunity, so you have to market it completely differently. You can’t build it by making the horses the stars (because they commonly retire after just two or three seasons). So how do you promote it then?
I think one of the ways we’re making it more digestible for people is the Run for the Roses program (in its first year for the 2012-2013 Derby season) — by giving points to the races and letting people follow that point system. I think that’s a huge benefit. There are people who don’t like this system; the Illinois Derby wasn’t included. Sure, there are problems, but you never, ever, write a first draft and turn it in. You have to start somewhere and learn from your mistakes and move forward.
Where do you see that marketing push coming from?
Take a look at the successful tracks and why they’re successful.
One of the things we have trouble with is that we race almost 365 days a year, which we didn’t used to do. I think because we have so many racing dates, that people get lost in how mundane it is. What’s special about going to the races if they’re happening every single day across the country? I think successful tracks limit race dates, and focus on building quality races.
When you look at Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar, the reason people go is because (it’s special), they want to dress up. They put on their best outfits, they try to go looking nice. You are dressing for the occasion of going to the races. Do you do that on a day going to Philadelphia Park? No.
How do you see racing’s future, given its various issues?
It’s scary, living in Lexington, watching horses go to New York. Will Lexington and this area always be the Horse Capital of the World? Not as long as New York continues to have the purses they do. It’s hard to tell, at this point. People follow the money. That’s always where it’s going to go. I don’t think it will always be in New York, though. There will probably eventually be a shift somewhere else, whether it’s back to Kentucky or elsewhere. People want to be competitive.
I think there will always be an interest in horse racing. The animals themselves are beautiful. They have personalities. They are athletes in a much different way than any other sporting animal.
And the people involved in horse racing are incredibly passionate. Now they all may have different ideas about how things should be done, but I do think that they want to see the sport continue and are willing to make sacrifices to keep it moving forward.
I do believe we’ll get through all of it. It won’t necessarily be the easiest thing, but I don’t think it’ll be shut down. I can’t imagine not having it.