Thoroughbred Racing’s Challenge and Opportunity with Social Media

In our instant gratification society, the internet has become both a blessing and a curse to those of us involved with Thoroughbred racing. On the blessing side, we have almost immediate access to everything we want to know at our fingertips – from breeding and sales to racing around the world to personal Facebook and Instagram pages for everyone from grooms and exercise riders to trainers and owners. It’s a convenience to have this connection and information available at the click of a button, but it’s just as easy for someone with an anti-racing or anti-equestrian sport agenda to be putting out “information” (dare I say “fake news”) online that misinforms and discourages potential new fans to participate and support our sport.

I’m on social media often, as most of you also are, and I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the comments that people leave on certain articles or posts regarding issues and events in racing the last few months. A major theme I’ve noticed is the “us against them” mentality. If anyone questions or criticizes the horse racing industry, we are so quick to jump down their throats with outrage about how “this is the way it is” and “they don’t understand” because they aren’t racetrackers themselves. This defensive, unapologetic, sometimes hostile reaction pushes away the very people that we should be trying to attract and encourage to become horse racing fans.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

There was a big scandal and debate surrounding apprentice jockeys winning their first race and the “initiation” which occurs afterwards that is typical of both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse riders. This has gone on since before my time – probably for as long as anyone can remember – and before it was standard to post everything you do on the internet for the world to see. It was with a mix of emotions – intrigue, embarrassment, shock and disbelief among them – that I read the comments and arguments going on back and forth over the issue. On one side, you had people standing up for the “assaulters” and berating the underage rider who was the “victim”, going so far as to say things like “if he can’t handle that, how can he handle being in a horse race” – which honestly, have zero relation to each other. I’ve definitely never ridden in a race during which someone shaved off an opponent’s eyebrows mid-stretch drive.

Then you had the other side, including my own mother, that were aghast and disgusted by this tradition (it was more than just eyebrows…feel free to google the incident). Personally, I understand both sides. “We” all know it happens; “they” didn’t. Had this not been recorded and put out on the internet, “they” probably still wouldn’t know, and it wouldn’t be an issue. But the fact of the matter isn’t what’s right or wrong, or what’s tradition, or what happens in the jocks room should stay in the jocks room… it’s the public perception of horse racing and those of us involved and how we react to certain situations.

Something that’s often been spoken and written about in a negative light is the use of a jockey’s whip. Case in point, American Pharoah and Victor Espinoza.

Here is a horse that captured the hearts of America, one of the stars of this century and an equine who undoubtedly created countless new fans and lovers of horse racing. On his Wikipedia page, 144 words have been dedicated to discussing the 32 times the whip was used during his Kentucky Derby win. To someone with zero horse or horse-racing experience, reading this or seeing a headline in the mainstream media that includes “excessive whipping” automatically gives you a negative impression. Some of the things I read online picked apart exactly how many times the jockey used his whip, why he needed to and where it landed – on the horse, on his boot, on the saddle towel, etc.

May 02, 2015: American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza (Outside blue & Yellow cap) win the 141st Kentucky Derby Grade 1 $2,000,000 at Churchill Downs for owner Zayat Stables and trainer Bob Baffert . Mary Meek/ESW/CSM

These, what I loosely refer to as discussions, turned into cursing dialogs predicting that AP would falter in the Preakness after exerting an effort that required that much use of the whip (wonder how those people felt after his domination in the Triple Crown, eh?), to telling each other to “get over the whip thing”, to other things I can’t write on this site. Over the years, whipping rules and guidelines have been restructured and enforced to limit their use and the whip itself has been redesigned to be more forgiving, for a reason. It would be so easy to educate others and create a positive out of a negative by showing the uneducated that we do care, we do listen, we do want to grow and encourage change in the right direction, and that our horse’s health and safety does come before anything else.

Many racetracks have embraced social media and taken advantage of the broad audience that they can reach to draw out a bigger crowd for the races, as well as live events each individual track may hold. There are often a lot of things to enjoy throughout a race meet such as live music, family days with kids activities, food truck vendors, and the widely enjoyed exotic animal races. It’s been used to promote different organizations such as the PDJF and Jockey’s Guild who do great things for current and retired or injured riders, as well as Thoroughbred rehoming organizations who help to ensure a life for our equine competitors after their retirement.

One thing I know about everyone who is involved in this sport is that we are incredibly passionate. It would be easy to take advantage of social media and use that passion and energy to help promote horse racing in as positive a light as possible. Sometimes it may feel like we are tucking our tails or not standing up for what we believe in and who we are, but that’s not true. There is nothing wrong with evolving with the world and people around you. Sometimes that may mean self-reflection and implementing a change, and sometimes it’s just teaching someone the meaning behind why we do what we do in an educated, rational manner.

It’s the families with kids who come out to the races and grow up wanting to be jockeys and trainers, it’s the bettors who want to become more personally involved that decide to get into ownership, it’s the fans that understand and appreciate the love that we have for what we do who will also work to promote our sport and ensure that horse racing has a better future.

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Article written by Cassandra Buckley Naupac

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