(Originally published in the November 3, 2012 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.
By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter
Thoroughbred racing has certainly taken its lumps over the years for not embracing television in the early years. Who knows where the sport would be today if racetracks had aggressively pushed their product out over the airwaves?
The good news is the sport collectively seems to have jumped the curve and embraced social media. Owners, trainers, Turf writers, key industry organizations such as The Jockey Club, Equibase, and Breeders' Cup along with the fans have created a vibrant virtual community rich in breaking news, trackside observations and photos, handicapping tips and picks, plus commentary and trivia.
Thoroughbred racing is well-suited to social media. With 10 races on a card, there are 10 new opportunities daily to assess the strengths and weakness in a field. Ten chances to debate the right or wrong decision a rider made at the top of the stretch or how much the pace affected the favorite. Ten chances to celebrate a winning pick or commiserate over a tough beat at the wire.
More importantly, social media has transformed racing's fans from spectators to participants. The unfolding story of Paynter (see pg. 3123) as told through Twitter and Facebook by owner Ahmed Zayat and his son, Justin, clearly illustrates this change.
The Zayats used Twitter to report regular health updates of the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner from the moment he began spiking fevers soon after his grade I win. With unusual transparency and regularity, the fans of racing were able to follow Paynter's dramatic story—the diagnosis and treatment for laminitis related to an infected colon, subsequent intestinal surgery, and his remarkable recovery. In return, the Zayats got tweets of encouragement and virtual prayers during a challenging time. Ahmed Zayat summed it up well in a Sept. 8 tweet: @jazz3162 You fans are really special. Your love is being felt and all his vets are thankful let alone myself and family.
Fans weren't just reading about the story online, they were participants—experiencing the highs and lows a racehorse owner goes through.
Social media allows the same interaction with trainers, jockeys, and members of the media.
Will this vastly improved interaction draw more people to Thoroughbred racing? At this point it is tough to know definitively whether the daily streams of tweets and posts are converting people into new fans.
We have learned at least one lesson from the proliferation of reality TV: Viewers love drama. What sport offers more drama than Thoroughbred racing? Natural tension exists between owners and trainers, trainers and jockeys, bettors and all of the above. Then there is the competition itself that plays out on the racetrack.
The sport has nothing to lose by opening itself up and allowing fans to play a more active role. The more people learn about the horses and the people who care for them, the more time, energy, and emotion they'll invest in the sport. The momentum then builds as these invested fans tweet and post more about racing and hopefully catch the eyes of others including perhaps a future owner who will bring to Thoroughbred racing the same high level of passion and enthusiasm as the Zayats.
TV will have a place for years in our multimedia world, but racing is right to focus on the Web and build up its base one tweet at a time.