Racking up gains
Event’s revenues, participation up
By Paul Huggins
PRICEVILLE — Racking horse officials say they’ve experienced their greatest breeding season in a long time, only they’re not talking about equine genetics.
Revenue and optimism have grown beyond what they hoped for after agreeing to terms to sell Celebration Arena to the State Products Mart a year ago.
“Excitement breeds excitement,” said Chris Walker, Racking Horse Breeders Association of America president, from Crossville, Tenn.
The positive outlook on the racking horse breed’s future is evident everywhere around the arena grounds. It’s in the new registry ledgers that show a 26-percent increase this year.
It’s in the rear parking lot packed with horse trailers. It’s in fuller campsites. It’s in the barns that have more stalls rented than last year.
And it’s in brimming confidence for a 5-year marketing plan aimed at the grass-roots level.
Horse entries for the nine-day World Celebration, which concludes Saturday, are up 10 percent from last year.
The show rented out 530 stalls through Monday, 200 more than last year.
All but three of the 69 camper sites are occupied, the highest in years.
Registration of new racking horses rose significantly from 304 in 2009 to 410 so far in 2010.
All that growth points to more revenue than in previous years.
“They say if you’re treading water in this economy, you’re doing good,” Walker said.
“But we’ve done better than treading water, we’ve seen an increase in revenue. We’ve outdone the rest of the economy. I think that speaks volumes.”
Racking horse growth bodes well for Decatur. Until recent years when the RHBAA saw its membership nosedive, World Celebration was the city’s largest tourism event annually. In 2003, World Celebration filled more than 2,500 hotel room nights.
Start of decline
A steep decline began in 2004, and last year, the show filled 302 room nights. The economic impact dropped from about $1 million in 2003 to $150,000 last year, according to figures from the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Walker and other racking horse officials said the growth stems from the most important factor in the economy: confidence.
The membership has regained confidence, they said, particularly with the association staff and with management of the arena. The latter is now under control of the Products Mart.
Judy Jones, RHBAA past president from Naples, N.C., and Fred McRoy, head of the association’s personnel and property committee from Olive Branch, Ill., said for several years, members grew frustrated by overextended staff and volunteers who couldn’t keep pace with basic needs. Often, association officers from out of town had to deal with facility issues, such as electric outages.
McRoy said it usually wasn’t simply a matter of finding someone to do repairs; it was finding someone affordable.
“I hardly ever get a call now,” McRoy said.
“Before, it was almost an every day deal,” Jones added.
The Products Mart, which officially bought the arena and property in January, made upgrades to the facility, including new water lines and a covered warm-up area, and has shown it will quickly respond to needs, both big and small, when horse shows come to the arena.
“When you have a problem and somebody is there to help you, it means a lot, and we didn’t have people who took care of that.” McRoy said.
Jones said selling the arena allows the association to focus full attention on promoting the racking horse breed.
Small shows throughout the spring and summer benefitted from financial and personal assistance this year, she added, and more attention to the grass-roots level should generate more interest in the bigger shows like World Celebration.
Jim Morris, former chairman of the personnel and property committee from Perryville, Mo., credits the extra attention given to association members is probably the chief reason there was a 26-percent increase in racking horse registrations this year. For the first time in years, the general public could see RHBAA officers unstressed and upbeat, he said.
“I’ve seen more enthusiasm with everybody down here, more enthusiasm than I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Morris said.
McRoy conceded he was pessimistic when he joined the RHBAA board three years ago, and it was wearing him out to spend 28 days out of the year in Priceville attending to facility issues.
“When I joined the board three years ago, I had to ask, ‘Why are you doing this. What is the future,’ ” he said.
“After we sold this place, I saw a future. I can see the positives of it. This year, I’ve enjoyed it.”