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Fashion, Food & Music Add to Growing Queen's Plate Experience

Fashion at the Queen's PlateJust a few years ago there were suggestions that the Queen’s Plate might become obsolete; deader than the Dodo Bird; the dinosaur of Canadian sports.

Times have changed.

In a Lazarus-style ressurection, organizers are now talking about it becoming the country’s biggest one-day sporting spectacular, featuring food, music, fashion and ... oh yeah, the best three-year-old thoroughbreds this country has to offer. But to be honest, the horses have become just a part of the show as the Woodbine Entertainment Group woos a new, younger and wider audience.

“Millenials want beverages, food, they enjoy fashion, music. Its not hard to look around the landscape to see the younger demographic are consuming things different than the older demographic,” said Paul Lawson, vice president of marketing at WEG. “We introduced the idea of a party within a party. We’ve built on that over the past four years. We knew we had a success when we did exit research a couple years ago and 50% of the guests at the Hats & Horseshoes Party were first time attendees to the Queens Plate. We knew at that point we had a good formula.”

It is a template other major tracks have used with success. Ascot. Melbourne. The Kentucky Derby isn’t so much a race day as it is a week-long festival, wek-day parades, including a day off school for local kids, fireworks and fashion shows that draw in celebrities. That, in turn, has drawn fans.

The Queen’s Plate is attempting to follow that same road.

“Our vision for the future is to look at a week long festival much like they’ve done with the derby. The important thing to us was to provide an exceptional experience on Queens Plate day first and then build on that foundation,” Lawson said.

So, while post time Sunday isn’t until 5:38 p.m., track gates open at 10 a.m. and the fun starts at noon with a Paddock Party featuring country band Andrew Hyatt and River Town Saints, one of a half-dozen bands scheduled to perform.

Melissa Grelo, Cynthia Loyst, Lainey Lui and Traci Melchor of CTV’s The Social host the Hats & Horseshoe Party, which is a people-watchers gala. It’s developing into a favourite among young urbanites and style-setters who turn out in suits — some that look like they came out of Don Cherry’s closet — and gowns and hats that look like they came out of a royal closet. Racing fans can walk the Pink Carpet, play croquet and other lawn games, or participate in Best Dressed contests for men and women.

“It’s really an all-day ... event,” Lawson said. “We knew we had to make the sport relevant to a wider audience. We knew we had to get younger to have (Millenials) believe this was relevant to them. Hats and Horsehoes in a way redefined the Queen’s Plate experience and lets them experience it on their own terms.”

To cap off the activities, Hedley and Matthew Good headline an evening concert.

And, if somewhere between all this a few folks watch a horse race and get hooked on the excitement, it’s all good for a sport that on too many nights still plays in front of empty seats.

While the Queen’s Plate may be a new way to introduce Gen Y, and to a lesser extent Gen X, to horse racing the ultimate goal is to bring them back to the track on days when there might not be any bands, or fancy food and celebrities.

“We want to engage them in the sport,” Lawson said. So Woodbine introduced a First Bets Are On Us program which offers anyone a free $2 bet. “We have ambassadors walking the venue showing people how to make that bet,” he said. “Our desire is for our new customers to feel that they’re part of the race. Hopefully they enjoy it and come back another day.”

Last year, 35,000 people turned out for the Plate, the highest attendance ever for a non-royalty-graced Queen’s Plate.

“We want to smash that record,” Lawson said.

To reach that goal the Queen’s Plate has become Woodbine’s biggest one-day markeing expenditure, with much of it targetting social media.

“We probably spend over a third of our budget on digital marketing. Its how the younger generation is consuming data. It allows you to targtet things like people interested in music or fashion and bring that audience in,” Lawson said.

And, the sport does have one advantage over all others in targetting that Gen Y demographic. The Internet is full of research showing it is a generation with a short attention span; one that quickly needs to move on to something of greater interest in a minute or two. Fortunately, that’s about the length of time it takes to run a horse race.

And, then, everybody can go back to their iPhones, or disapper into the Twittersphere.

PLACE YOUR BETS

In its quest for racing newbies, Woodbine doesn’t want to alienate the converted.

“We want to make sure they don’t feel left out,” said Paul Lawson, Woodbine Entertainment’s vice-president of marketing.

“Another key target is the current racing fan.”

And there are still long-term devotees. Last year, in fact, the Plate set wagering records. The 2015 Plate had a wagering total of $11.06 million, eclipsing the previous mark in 2013 of $9.7 million. It also established a record handle for any day at Woodbine, except the 1996 Breeders’ Cup.

“We’ve put together a fantastic card of racing for those people interested in handicapping the sport,” Lawson said. “We also have guaranteed pools so we’re sure there are strong pools for people to wager into. We spent a lot of time making certain that U.S. handicappers are aware of the Plate as well. We want to draw that attention to Canada on our biggest day. The audience isn’t just new customers on site.” 

- by Bill Lankhof/www.torontosun.com

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