The Outside Rail

Queen’s Cup Steeplechase co-founders Carrington and Bill Price got a call from a friend who said she was throwing a tailgate party, socially distanced of course, and enjoying the day even if the races were canceled. Some race-day volunteers said they were going to miss their rewarding, if hectic, assignments. Then Prices’ daughter Brent Gallagher, the meet’s part-time director of social media, jumped in.

And that’s how the Price family came to be the only spectators at  Brooklandwood Race Course in Mineral Springs, N.C., April 25. The Prices – Bill, Carrington, son Jamey, daughter-in-law Emily and grandson James – enjoyed a lunch, sunshine and every 45 minutes or so video replay of the five races from 2019 complete with announcer Mark Johnston’s calls. From All For Us in the first to No Mans Land in the fifth, the winners raced and the people cheered from their backyards, kitchens, basements, driveways, whatever. The Prices, who live on the race course property, set up a table for lunch near the finish line on what turned out to be a perfect, chamber-of-commerce day.

“It made us feel better if nothing else, and I think the patrons appreciated it,” said Carrington, of the virtual day at the races. “It just kept people engaged and gave us another reason to be in touch with them.”

In the end, website traffic didn’t rival Amazon but the endeavor was worthwhile – especially with the season all but wiped out by the virus.

The Queen’s Cup was one of 13 National Steeplechase Association dates canceled this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. Just two, from an original lineup of 15 from mid-March to late May, remain on the calendar for June. And they’ll run without spectators, if at all. Save for a few visits to racetracks and three individual meets, the American jump racing circuit does not feature pari-mutuel wagering. Purses and other revenue come from spectators and sponsors, who buy tailgate spaces, box seats, hospitality tents, general-admission tickets and so on. The model has worked for more than 100 years, but showed its vulnerabilities this spring as the virus caused the closure of public events. 

The spring calendars isn’t a total loss, but it’s close. Middleburg Spring and the Virginia Gold Cup were awaiting word from Virginia’s secretary of agriculture Bettina Ring on racing June 13 and 27 (with restrictions on spectators and other safety protocols) respectively, with Pennsylvania’s Cheshire Point-to-Point still clinging to its June 14 date.

The whole endeavor counts on people actually coming to the meets, held in 11 states mainly on the East Coast. When the virus arrived, and various state policies banning public gatherings came with it, race meets were abandoned. The decisions took $2 million or so off the table for owners and trainers, saddled some meets with expenses and no revenue, and forced ticket buyers to consider refunds, donations or staying the course and hoping for better circumstances in 2021.

Most meets benefit charities, including children’s hospitals to land preservation groups, and are traditions in their communities so the cancelations hit hard. At the Queen’s Cup, all of the day’s major sponsors stayed in and rolled their support over to next year. Many individual patrons chose to do the same. The business plan, once the race meet was shelved, centered on minimizing the damage.

“We had a fair number of patrons just roll it over to next year, which is a statement on how much they love the event and how willing they are to support the event,” said Carrington Price. “Some wanted refunds, which is understandable given all that’s going on in the world, but the support was very much appreciated.”

A virtual day at the races does not compare to a day at the races, but it’s something and became a reality just because of some conversations. The Queen’s Cup is a family affair – Bill and Carrington run the show, their daughter Brent handles social media (around her real job in marketing with the Palm Beach Day Academy in Florida), their son Jamey (a professional photographer) can be found behind a camera most years. Queen’s Cup staffers Mia Miller and Liz Clayton coordinate everything else.

The Prices hosted their first NSA meet in the fall of 1995, but moved to the spring (and the Queen’s Cup name) the following year. Brooklandwood, a sprawling course with lush turf and terraced lawn boxes along the homestretch, is one of the circuit’s best. Like all NSA meets, this one counts on attracting a crowd – to sell sponsorships, fund purses, maintain the course, pay staff and so on. The landscape changes, constantly, but the basics remain the same. Get people to the races. How that works in this new reality remains to be seen.

“The model has been shifting over the past few years,” said Bill Price. “People want to take Lyft and Uber and buses to the races more now. If everybody does that, you can’t tailgate. If nobody’s willing to drive . . . We’ve been making adjustments for that a little bit over the years (with more packages that include transportation and a common hospitality area), but we still need to get people to the event.” 

And they’re not alone. Every NSA meet will face this challenge, much like flat racing’s big events (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Saratoga, Del Mar, Breeders’s Cup and so on). At least they've got betting for some revenue. American jump racing has no such backstop on which to lean, and it feels dangerous.

As for the virtual day at the races, it didn’t change much other than for a few hours. People really did set up tailgate spreads. They tuned in via Facebook, YouTube and Instagram as the races started at 1:30 p.m. Nobody knows if the spectators watching from home cheered or not, but hey it’s fun to think about.

“It evolved from let’s post about tailgating to seeing if people would have virtual tailgates and watch the races,” said Carrington Price. “People really did dress up, and decorate, and have fun with it. It stirred a lot of energy and you want to keep the event and the sport in everybody’s mind, so we don’t forget about it next year.”

We can't wait.