LEXINGTON, Ky. – Heidemarie Gentryswift has worked around horses for years, and she has a farm in Cartersville, Ga., that owns thoroughbreds and trains show-ring hunter-jumpers.
But when it comes to betting on thoroughbred racing, Gentryswift said there’s a lot she doesn’t know. She faced that fact on a recent Saturday when she spoke to Jake Memolo, one of a dozen “betologists” that Lexington’s Keeneland race course has begun deploying into its crowds to answer questions and assist patrons.
“I’m learning from him how to bet smarter,” Gentryswift said. “He’s giving me tons of ideas – how to look at the horses in the paddock, how to watch them as they exercise. I’m realizing how little I know.”
“This can be very intimidating,” she added. “You don’t know how to read the program. You don’t know how to prepare to place an informed bet. But when you have betologists, they can inform you.”
Memolo, 21, a University of Kentucky student studying equine science and management, is enthusiastic about helping people learn the sport.
“I’ve had a ton of people come up to me and say, ‘Help! I’m a beginner, and I don’t know what I’m doing,’ ” Memolo said. “Once you know what’s going on and you understand, you gain interest. And so, for thoroughbred horse racing, we need more young people in this game. And people like us are here to make that happen.”
A number of thoroughbred tracks across the country are trying to make racing less intimidating and more engaging for the public. The Jockey Club initiated a program called “America’s Best Racing,” which offers a “Racing 101 Fan Hub” at select tracks, Stephen Panus, director of communications for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, wrote in an email.
In some cases, there is a “smaller mobile team that is akin to the betologist program,” Panus wrote. That mobile team was at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., in March during the Florida Derby.
Research conducted last year showed that 40 percent of Keeneland’s patrons are between the ages of 18 and 34, said Christa Marillia, director of marketing for the track. Reaching out to those who might not know much about betting is a way to create and retain fans.
Andrew Beyer, longtime thoroughbred racing columnist for the Washington Post and the Daily Racing Form, said he can see why Keeneland would want to cater to novice bettors.
“It probably makes more sense at Keeneland than it would at most tracks because Keeneland seems to get an unusual number of young people and novices,” Beyer said. “The live attendance at most tracks around the country, they’re pretty much hard-core” patrons who know how to read a program.
Keeneland deploys a dozen betologists on Fridays and Saturdays and six on other race days, said Julie Balog, director of communications for the track. They are available each race day at Wagering Central – a kind of concierge-style service desk located at trackside under the grandstand – and on Saturdays they are also at The Hill, the new name for the free tailgate parking area near the Keene Barn and Entertainment Center.
Saturday, Katie Frettz, 22, another University of Kentucky student, was among four betologists who mingled in the crowd between the paddock and grandstand. Each betologist wore a green vest and a tan fedora with a button on the brim that said, “Ask me about betting.”
“We don’t want to tell people how to formulate picks. That’s not our job,” Frettz said. “We want to make sure they know how to read a program, to be able to understand what all the terminology means, and we want to sign them up for Keeneland Select (an advance-deposit wagering platform) and how to bet from your phone.”
At Wagering Central, Matthew Ernst of Lexington had a wagering app installed on a computer tablet by betologist Courtney McClure so his two sons could use it next week to place bets. He also had the app installed on his smartphone.
“Anything to promote the horse business is wonderful,” Ernst said of the betologists. He said he considers himself a savvy bettor, “but I really stink at it. I could use all the help I can get.”