So running for the Triple Crown is really akin to building and optimizing a successful consumer website? Really? Okay, let’s take a look.

The Business Leader

Although American Pharaohs' owner, Ahmed Zyad, holds the purse strings, the real business leader is his trainer, Bob Baffert. He picks the team, allocates budget, establishes the training protocol and practice schedule, and determines the races in which horse will compete. Everyone on this team works together towards one goal – to win – while keeping the horse healthy, thriving and ready for what’s coming next.

In your organization, the trainer may be akin to the “Sponsor,” “Champion,” or any of the key stakeholders that may lead the development of an online initiative.

Think of American Pharaoh as your website. You need to “feed it” healthy content, “protect it” from bad guys, create a fantastic “persona” and “experience,” and promote it to an engaged audience. If you don’t feed the horse, it withers away. Similarly, if you make it too difficult for your consumers to do business with you, they will move on and find an alternative.


Ultimately, its about working – not in silos, but as a true team. I’m taking a bit of liberty with the name of the teams in the horse racing world, but in the online world they are:


Each Triple Crown race brings with it a swarm of media, racing officials, celebrities, and fans to the barn areas at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park. The goal is to keep the bad guys away and to let the good guys in. If this sound just like the things we strive to do in the world of security and authentication, that’s because it is.

Just as we do for online consumers, if the visitor is someone new, the security team will set up touch points and “authenticate” the visitor based on what they are trying to do. For example, the driver of the feed truck will have one type of security credential, while someone trying to get close to American Pharaoh in his paddock will have another.

But the security team knows Bob (with his full head of white hair) well, so he can go anywhere with no questions asked. However, the security team must talk to the teams responsible for scheduling the feed trucks, blacksmiths, or VIPs who come to visit, so they know who to expect and give them the access they need to get their jobs done. In this world, as in the online world, providing the appropriate access to a worker or consumer is key. For example, if access is denied to the blacksmith who is only one of two who know how to properly shoe thin-hoofed thoroughbreds, it could set the entire team back months. Or even forever.

Key takeaway:
Appropriate security and authentication matters. Provide the right level of access, with the right safeguards, but do it in a way that preserves the relationship with your audience and all the members of your team.

Fraud Prevention

If anyone tries to approach American Pharaohs' barn areas, the guards are on high alert and ready to react. Actually, there was an incident in which a bus full or fans showed up at Churchill Downs fraudulently claiming to be part of the press corps. Trying to “authenticate” without the proper media credentials, they were reported to security, deemed to be fraudsters and turned away. Just like in the online world, the Fraud Prevention teams work hand-in-hand with security to keep the bad guys away while letting the good guys in.

An example of these challenges was witnessed with a client of mine who was developing a website to target a demographic that was different that what was the norm for the client company (low income vs. affluent). The low income target consumer often shared a home with several families. However, fraud prevention strategies had been developed for the affluent audience who rarely shared a home.

Suffice it to say that risk thresholds were tripped for most of the target audience (multiple attempts to register from a single home). Unfortunately, the fraud team was not amenable to making any changes to the existing processes, thus the product for the low income consumers never took off.

There were other dynamics in play on this instance, of course, but it struck me like a bolt of lighting that, without effective communication between IT/Security/Fraud and Product management, the consumer experience will be dismal and the consumer will “feel” it.

Key takeaway:
Security and fraud prevention teams working hand-in-hand to create a comfortable yet secure environment for American Pharoah keep him safe and healthy. When IT/Security/Fraud and product teams work together in the online world, the business can thrive.

Customer Experience / Marketing

Horse racing is about about building up and managing expectations. Only with anticipation will the prize money increase and the public awareness grow. As with all online properties, it’s both a matter of developing a site that exceeds the expectations of the audience, while simultaneously messaging the value to the target audience. In this case, an exceptional public experience was driven by getting to “know” the horse. I heard stories about American Pharaoh being called “El Stupido” by his jockey when they first met, only to find that the horse hated blinders and was frightened by loud noises (ever wonder what those huge white cotton balls were in his ears?).

For American Pharaoh, the horse has such a friendly personality, and so thrives on attention, that the owners and their marketing team (Licensing Agency) felt they could capitalize with some pretty corny promotions. But you know what? The love everyone felt for the horse (and the fact that he won) made it work. What was the corniest? When the Burger King “King” stood next to Baffert in the winner’s circle. Cheesy? Yes. But done for a good cause. The $200,000 he was paid was donated to four equine charities.

Key takeaway:
The online consumer experience is the responsibility of the collective teams in your organization. One team cannot exist as an island. Trust me. I have seen this work well, and I have seen several disasters.

A Lesson Learned

One in particular comes to mind. A publicly traded company that I know had built a high margin, high growth subscription business that was growing revenue in excess of 30% each year. The consumers really loved this organization (had some really fun and wacky commercials) as it provided significant value to the consumer and kept them entertained while watching TV.

Right before the end of the fiscal year, the parent company determined that it needed to add to its bottom line to keep shareholders happy. The executive team, which had built this “beautiful base” and relationship with their consumers, decided the only option was to raise the monthly subscription rate for the third time in a year – while adding zero incremental value. Well, as is typical with a subscription model, it took several months for the consumers to figure this out (they often don’t pay attention to the charge on their credit card), but when it hit, it hit hard.

At just about this same time, a competitor they had ignored and marginalized, came to market with a like offer – at no cost. Within 8 months, business was down 40% and customer trust and loyalty was destroyed. Working in a silo, the parent company didn’t talk to the team nor did they understand the consumer experience and the loyalty the team had established with their consumers. Just like that, the beautiful, growing online business was mortally wounded.

American Pharoah is the product of a collection of talented teams, all working together to create a winner. It’s a shining example of teamwork with a clear direction and well-defined goals.

Next up in this blog series: "Each race is unique." Stay tuned.