01/31/2013 3:14PM

Horsemen on Twitter find faster, better way to engage fans

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Ken McPeek is among the most active tweeters among horsemen. "Every media person doesn’t have to call me and ask their questions if they’re following what I’m saying," he said. "It makes my world easier."

Frac Daddy entered the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park as a promising 3-year-old colt who had finished second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in his last start at age 2. Horseplayers bet him to 5-1 in the Holy Bull, but his backers never even got a thrill: Frac Daddy finished a flat, distant sixth.

What happened?

The answer to this kind of question, if it comes at all, is typically filtered out a day or more later, when someone – reporter, racetrack publicity – interviews a horse’s connections and publishes what was said. In this case, an answer hit the public domain minutes after Frac Daddy crossed the finish line. The race ended at 5:10 p.m. Eastern. At 5:28, Frac Daddy’s trainer, Ken McPeek, posted Holy Bull news on his Twitter account.

“Humbling game,” McPeek wrote. “Frac Daddy grabbed a quarter and was really green. Needs blinkers and maturity. We learned something today. Longer stretch.”

Trainers and jockeys, the humans on racing’s front lines, are using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook in ever greater numbers. Twitter, an online social networking and micro-blogging service, has become particularly popular, and Twitter posts and photographs from racing insiders to some extent are pulling down curtains that block out fans and bettors while speeding the flow of information. The platform can raise a tricky question for participating horsemen: How much should be shared?

McPeek, after Frac Daddy’s Holy Bull, pushed onward. A few minutes after his first post, McPeek issued two more tweets: “A longer stretch and if he will act more professional then he has a chance,” and, “Next start undecided. Will add blinkers and see how he progresses.” These read like traditional trainer-speak, a horseman trying to think and talk his way through a disappointing result. Then McPeek took things further. At 6:39, an hour and a half after the race, he tweeted a graphic close-up of a large wound on the back of Frac Daddy’s heel, where he had stepped on himself – “grabbed a quarter” – at some point during his race. “We are going to need some time to heal,” McPeek tweeted.

“I think it’s very positive, what Kenny McPeek did,” said Graham Motion, one of the most active tweeters among trainers. “What a great idea for people to see what you’re actually doing. To make ourselves more available, makes us a little better known. In racing, we tend to be more secretive, and I think it’s a shame.”

Breeders, commercial farms, and partnership services latched more quickly onto social media than horsemen in the trenches: The potential marketing benefits of Twitter and Facebook are a driving force in the media’s existence. Other owners and breeders, such as Stonestreet Farm, are fully engaged with new media even though the platforms offer less tangible benefits. Stonestreet regularly tweets photos of Rachel Alexandra and foals at its Kentucky nursery to its many avid followers.

The owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat and his son, Justin, used Twitter to bend coverage of the talented 2013 3-year-old Paynter. Jay Privman reported in Daily Racing Form on Aug. 11 that Paynter, who won the Haskell Invitational on July 29, had quietly been sent to a veterinary clinic on July 31 for undisclosed reasons.

“The current condition of Paynter and his whereabouts have been difficult to ascertain in recent days, because his connections have refused to disclose detailed information,” Privman reported.

Paynter’s eventual diagnosis was colitis and possible onset of laminitis, which nearly proved fatal. By then, the Zayats had gone into full-disclosure mode. They tweeted frequently and in great detail about Paynter’s condition and treatments, with fans and reporters hanging on their updates. The campaign led to Paynter’s recovery being named the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s “Moment of the Year” in 2012.

McPeek said he started using Twitter less than one year ago. At first, he had one of his employees compose tweets, but recently he began tweeting on his own and using the platform more frequently.

“Every media person doesn’t have to call me and ask their questions if they’re following what I’m saying,” McPeek said. “It makes my world easier.”

McPeek said posting the photo of Frac Daddy’s injured foot was an easy call.

“I felt like it was the right thing to do,” he said. “The horse is better than that; it was a misfire. But I tend to be a bit of an open book anyway.”

McPeek is 50 but has embraced technology like a younger person more fully embedded in this digital age. (McPeek started a free racing application for mobile phones, available simply by texting 84700 and typing horse.) Other trainers have dabbled less resolutely in Twitter and its 140-character-limited communication system. Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey − believe it or not − has a Twitter account. Shug-on-Twitter began with a small measure of promise, McGaughey tweeting five times between Sept. 30 and Oct. 3, but he was not heard from again until Dec. 30, when McGaughey, 62, let it be known that “Everything is good at Gulfstream.” All right, then.

Nick Zito, 64, with his Yogi Berra-like knack for the odd brief turn of phrase, has the potential to be a master tweeter. Alas, the Zito stable’s Twitter feed has gone silent since Aug. 2, and after quickly amassing more than 1,500 followers, issued but 13 Tweets.

During Zenyatta’s racing years, her trainer, John Shirreffs, 67, tweeted once, in 2009. His account remains open and unused since. Todd Pletcher, 45, has a good-looking black-and-white head-shot photo on the top of his Twitter page and has accumulated 2,283 followers. One also finds a message announcing, “Todd Pletcher hasn’t tweeted yet.” Pletcher’s Twitter presence is confined to the hyperbolic egomania espoused by his fake Twitter doppelganger, @Notthetoddster.

Bob Baffert is on Twitter and has accumulated an impressive 12,350 followers, but for Baffert, 60, Twitter is a one-way street: He follows just three other users and said he doesn’t engage in dialogue with entities that respond to his tweets.

Baffert, who says he does his own tweeting, posts workout reports for noteworthy horses. He let it be known the morning of the race that Super Ninety Nine had been cast in his stall and would be scratched from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint.

“I really just use it to put information out there once in a while,” Baffert said. “I usually make up my mind at the last minute about things, so it’s good for that.”

Tom Proctor, a 56-year-old lifetime racetracker, is another surprising Twitter user. A Proctor employee writes some of his tweets, but Proctor also tweets for himself occasionally. And like young people everywhere and at all times, Proctor can periodically be found peering into his mobile phone, seeing what’s happening on Twitter.

“Times have changed,” he said. “I can’t run my business like my father and be successful. I try to do the horsemanship like him, but the business model has changed. I think you have to evolve. I kind of chuckle: I’ve got over 1,400 people who want to listen to what I have to say.”

Proctor, a man of many large opinions, also has learned the art of Twitter self-censorship.

“Believe me, I want to Tweet silly stuff all the time, and you don’t know how many times I write something out and then delete it. You can’t respond to every little thing. We’re just trying to learn to be a little more media savvy over here.”

Graham Motion thinks about how deeply he wants to engage with Twitter followers, too, but Motion has pushed the line further than most horsemen. Motion, 48, first became aware of Twitter because he has a teenage daughter: “I got an account to keep an eye on her,” he half-joked. He started tweeting a little more than a year ago. Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, was in the process of making a comeback then and was a contender for an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old.

“When Animal Kingdom got the Eclipse, people accused me of influencing the decision on Twitter,” Motion said. “I don’t really mind that if it’s true.”

Motion has issued more than 3,100 tweets to his more than 6,000 followers. He regularly posts photos of Animal Kingdom and other prominent horses in his stable, and, unlike Baffert, constantly engages in Twitter dialogue with other users. The tweets come steadily, most every day. Motion has limited the number of Twitter users he follows to 100; when he finds someone new he wants to follow, he has to drop someone else from the group.

“You become obsessed,” he said. “It can become too time consuming.”

Motion has allowed his personality to infiltrate his Twitter-self. In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, Motion expressed strong opinions about gun control on the same Twitter account that basically defines him as a horse trainer – a powerful instance of the personal infiltrating the professional.

“It is hard to find a line between doing the sports stuff and using Twitter for personal stuff,” Motion said. “I try to be controlled about it. I try not to be a spur-of-the-moment tweeter. On gun control, though, it’s something I feel very strongly about. With Twitter I have a way of reaching thousands of people.”

Motion gives voice to Twitter users with viewpoints hostile to his, retweeting posts regarding his gun control stance or, in a less explosive vein, his training methods.

“When you lose with a 3-5 shot they start tweeting that you can’t train a horse,” Motion said. “A little bit of criticism is good, but I think Twitter can be even harder on the jockeys.”

Brian Hernandez Jr., who rode Fort Larned to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall, has been on Twitter for a little more than a year.

“It’s like everything,” said Hernandez Jr., 27. “You do get some people who want to bash you, but you don’t take it to heart. It’s good to keep connected, and it’s a lot more positive than anything.”

Early on the morning of Jan. 14, Hernandez was waiting to work the sharp 3-year-old maiden winner Proud Strike at Fair Grounds. He tweeted a photo of the horse in his stall, an act alone signaling to plugged-in racing fans that Proud Strike might be worth following.

“You say something about a horse like Proud Strike, instead of 20 people watching for him, you might have 500,” Hernandez said. “You’re letting the fans in more.”

Letting fans in, and breaking down walls between the public and the sport, has people like McPeek thinking that social media might really alter the way racing is consumed.

“I think it is a fundamental change, but other sports are way ahead of horse racing,” he said. “This is something that could really get this sport going.”

Still, most trainers and jockeys aren’t trafficking in social media. The bulk of the sport continues to churn along below the waterline, out of public sight. Motion, who has thrown the doors nearly wide open, is and will remain exceptional.

“Just keep in mind, this is selective information on Twitter,” Proctor cautioned, a wink in his voice. “We’re only going to put out what we want you to know.”