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  • Personal Brands Bring Life to the Sport of Kings

    For those of you who like horse racing, May has been a good month. It’s Triple Crown time right now in the US – which is the championship series for top 3 year old horses. Normally this series passes by almost unnoticed by the general public.

    Not this year though. First, a 50-1 long-shot named Mine That Bird did a thrilling last-to-first dash to win the Kentucky Derby going away. Then, in the Preakness Stakes, a filly (female horse) beat the boys for the first time in over 80 years in a thrilling wire-to-wire victory.

    It’s been a very exciting time… and there’s still one more race to go

    This year, the Triple Crown races have been interesting not just for the horses, but also the people. Most years, the personal brands of the people behind the racers are incredibly consistent: wealthy owners with impressive pedigrees, elite trainers who get the best horses every year, and top jockeys with a place already reserved in the Hall of Fame.

    There’s not really much to distinguish most of them. After all, who can really tell one designer-clad gazillionaire from another?

    This year though, the people behind the horses really stood out. On the first Saturday in May, after the running of the most prestigious race in America, the usual suspects were nowhere to be seen. Mine That Bird’s owners weren’t bluebloods –and didn’t pretend to be. They were two regular guys who met in a barfight years ago who decided to buy some racehorses together. They entered their horse in the Derby for kicks — and then they won!

    The winning trainer and the jockey weren’t elite either. The trainer drove Mine That Bird across the country using his left leg on the accelerator (the right had been broken in a motorcycle accident). The jockey had a grade school education and was the one left over when Mine That Bird rolled into town and needed someone to ride him. After Mine That Bird crossed the finish line in front, the jockey cried because his parents weren’t alive to see his victory.

    When the cameras focused on the rough-and-tumble group in the winner’s circle, the racing bluebloods must have been appalled. To then, the Derby is the most important prize of the sport… to be won by the best owners and trainers with the most expensive horses. It’s not for a bunch of cowboys who entered because they thought it would be fun.

    But, despite all the disdain heaped on Mine That Bird and his people by the racing world after his shocking Derby victory, the press loved them. People were thrilled that a couple friends could buy a horse, take a daring shot at the US’s most prestigious race and win. For a change, horse racing’s most visible figures were a couple of regular guys.

    Then, in the weeks before the Preakness, another personal brand got a lot of attention. Jess Jackson, an owner, spent the last two years trying to prove himself as an advocate for racing. When most owners would have retired a champion horse after his 3-year old season… Jackson instead took his champion overseas to race against the world’s best. Then, having conquered in Dubai, he brought Curlin back home and challenged the horse to race on different surfaces – even though he knew he might not win, because he knew that’s what the public wanted to see.

    This year, Jackson took another risk. He bought the top female horse in the country from her owners because they didn’t want to race her against males – and promptly entered her in the Preakness Stakes because he felt “champions should race against champions”. He took a lot of criticism for his decision from other owners, but held fast in his belief that it would be good for racing.

    On Preakness day, Rachel Alexandra proved him right. She took the lead early and bravely held off a big challenge from Mine That Bird to become only the fifth female horse to win that race in 134 years. And racing her against the guys was great for racing as well. More people tuned in to watch the Preakness than ever before and it popped up in conversations everywhere.

    It was a great validation of Jackson’s brand as someone who made decisions for the good of racing. And it added much more interest to the often-overlooked middle race of the Triple Crown as well.

    Personal brands make things more interesting

    Horse racing is not one of those sports where it’s really easy to attract new fans. It’s an expensive sport to get into and full of very important, very rich people. Add to that the fact that the equine stars last for such a short time: some from being quickly shuttled off to stud and others from injuries.

    The main person brands in racing aren’t very appealing to fans. Rich owners who buy wildly expensive horses for a brief shot at glory, and then who shuttle these same horses quickly off to stud when their value is the highest.

    That’s why it’s so great to see the personal brands that emerged this year. Mine That Bird’s connections showed that racing can be for anyone, and then Rachel Alexandra’s owner proved that some owners are willing to take unpopular stands in order to race champions versus champions.

    Neither of those horses would have had the chance to win their races without the unique brands of their owners. If Mine That Bird had had different owners, they would have quickly written him off for a couple of bad races. If Rachel Alexandra still had her old owners, she would never have gotten the chance to prove that she was not just a top filly, but a top racehorse.

    The personal brands of the owners is not what made the races possible, they made the races more interesting. And that’s what horse racing needs… not more interchangeable wealthy owners.


    Katie Konrath writes about creativity, innovation and “ideas so fresh… they should be slapped!” at www.getFreshMinds.com.

    Katie works with Fortune 500 companies to help them generate new ideas based on consumer insights at leading innovation company www.IdeasToGo.com. She’s worked with creativity guru Edward de Bono and uncovered new ideas across North America and Europe. Prior to that, she earned a Masters degree in Creativity and Innovation from the Institute for the Design and Development of Thinking in Malta, was certified as a Lateral Thinking trainer, and studied at the TRIZ Institute in St Petersburg, Russia. She writes the leading innovation blog, GetFreshMinds.com.

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