(AP)– Dare Sutton and Sam Bussanich watched the horses run at Keeneland Racecourse and a crazy idea came to mind.
Sutton, 24, suggested they buy one. Bussanich was game.
“We’re both young,” said Bussanich, 21. “We both make stupid decisions. Why not?”
They soon discovered buying a horse was too lofty a goal, but that conversation sparked a move horse racing officials hope can help change the face of the sport during a turbulent time. Along with friend Sophie Shore, they founded Nexus Racing Club to give 18- to 30-year-olds a chance to get into the sport through exclusive access, networking events and connections to those who run the industry.
Amid the uproar over fatalities at Santa Anita , the Kentucky Derby disqualification, challenges from expanded legalized sports gambling and an aging fan base, horse racing badly needs an infusion of youth. Now, these young women have the chance to help revive what’s sometimes referred to as a dying sport.
“Young people can bring new creative ideas to the sport,” said Jaime Roth, who runs her family’s LNJ Foxwoods stable. “Are there bad things? Yeah. But for the most part, it’s a great sport. We’re dependent on the future and young women are a big part of the future.”
Bussanich firmly believes “if we don’t get these young people into the sport, we’re not going to have horse racing.” A 2016 study noted the average horse racing fan is 63 , — younger only than golf — and decision makers, owners and trainers are still prominently older white men.
“We constantly sit around board room tables and say, ‘How are we going to get more young people involved in horse racing?’” owner and Thoroughbred Ideas Foundation president and CEO said Craig Bernick said. “I’m the youngest person around the table a lot of times and I’m 41.”
Nexus is full of people horse racing executives yearn to attract: Bussanich grew up in New Jersey and developed her affection for the sport from going to a track in Florida at age 6; Sutton fell in love when filly Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont and Nexus member relations director Mary Cage was hooked by Smarty Jones’ underdog story during the 2004 Triple Crown.
Horse racing is so often a passion passed down generationally. The Nexus co-founders are trying to break down what they see as a high barrier into the industry.
“We just hope to show people that you don’t just have to be born into this sport,” said Sutton, who’s midway through optometry school at Indiana University. “You don’t have to be super rich or anything. That’s what we hope to do is just make it accessible, see that it is a possibility to get involved and enjoy this sport.”
Money is an obstacle. Training for high-profile thoroughbreds can cost upward of $34,000 a year, and Nexus’ first graded stakes race winner, Cruel Intention, was bought by LNJ Foxwoods and partners for $200,000.
That’s why in the almost three years since that fateful day at the track, the idea evolved from pooling money for a horse into a membership that partners with established owners on horses. It’s $100 to join, and while there’s no money in it when a Nexus horse wins a race, members can visit the barns and paddock, get daily updates and maybe even be in the winner’s circle — many perks of ownership without the hefty cost.
“A lot of people looked at us funny when we were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have no money in these horses,’” said Bussanich, who is an equine and marketing double major at the University of Kentucky and works for Preakness-winning trainer Mark Casse. “For young people, it’s not a business. It’s getting to be able to touch a horse, be able to go to the races, be able to go into the paddock. We don’t need monetary involvement in the sport for it to be special for us.”
Bussanich says millennials and Generation Z want to feel special and suggests ideas like college ticket pricing and exclusive opportunities like she found at Royal Ascot in England last fall. Betting is confusing to her, but she believes visceral experiences are more important: her tears of joy when Casse’s War of Will won the Preakness, a horse’s breath helping a fan bond individually with the animal.
The industry is grappling with ideas to attract more bettors. Nexus is attempting to attract fans with an insider’s view of the sport.
“They get to come out to the barn in the mornings if they want, just show them what’s going on. I just thought it was pretty neat,” said owner and trainer Dallas Stewart, whose filly Diamond Crazy is part of the program.
Bernick, Roth, Stewart and Starlight Racing’s Jack Wolf were among the first to team up with Nexus, which now has over 70 members and connections to eight horses.
“I’d like them to have 5,000 because if this were available when I was growing up, I would’ve jumped for it,” said Bernick, who operates Glenn Hill Farm, which was started by his grandfather.
Sutton says she hopes the company that brought the women together can also lead to more women calling shots at higher levels of the sport.
“You’re starting to see more and more women become successful in this industry, whether it be owners or trainers or jockeys,” Cage said. “The more we can get this younger generation involved in this sport, the more of that you’re going to see because you hear about horse-crazy little girls and a lot of us don’t grow out of that phase. We’re just going to keep seeing more of that.”