07/30/2015 11:05AM

Social media helping to tell American Pharoah’s tale


The world changed dramatically in the 37 years between Affirmed outdueling arch rival Alydar at Belmont Park and American Pharoah’s own triumphant romp down that long homestretch to finally bring the Triple Crown trophy out of storage. That was in plain evidence as the bay colt stormed through the lane, with thousands of smartphones and tablets thrust skyward to capture the historic image, and those perspectives of the day then being shared thousands of times on social networks.

As of the first quarter of 2015, Twitter averaged 236 million monthly users; Facebook, which predates it by about two years, has 1.44 billion. That populace, of course, includes a solid segment of racing connections who share updates on their stables, racing media using the tools to disseminate information, and fans sharing their racetrack experiences.

Among the most active racing personalities on Twitter are the people behind Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. In addition to an official Zayat Stables account, both owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat and his son Justin, the racing and stallion manager for the stable, maintain personal accounts, regularly sharing news, posting behind-the-scenes photos or post-race reactions, and answering questions from fans. Jockey Victor Espinoza also maintains an account, even posting from the jockeys’ room prior to the Triple Crown races. As the sport works to grow its fan base by capitalizing on the momentum of the Triple Crown, social media allow the public to directly connect with racing personalities.

“As I started tweeting more and more, I realized how important it was to engage the average fan,” said Justin Zayat. “We get questions – everything from, ‘How do you spell your horse’s name?’ or, ‘Is your horse a boy or a girl?’ to really comprehensive, intense questions about pedigree and handicapping. I think it’s very important to engage the public. We do it on a daily basis to keep our fans involved and to bring more awareness.”

Trainer Bob Baffert, who no longer maintains a personal Twitter account, also has noted how social media have changed fan engagement with his prominent runners.

“Now with social media, people know what he’s doing every step,” Baffert said. “Before, when we had Silver Charm and all those good horses, social media wasn’t around really to let people know what was going on every minute of the day. Now everyone knows where he is. I might as well put a GPS on him.”

The Zayats were among the first prominent racing connections to wholeheartedly embrace social media. Justin Zayat said he began noticing Twitter’s usefulness in 2012, when Bodemeister was preparing for his runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby.

“It was just Bodemeister warming up for the Derby, and I’d tweet a picture of him,” Zayat said. “And I realized so many fans would re-tweet the picture or like it, and it was getting some traction. So, I was tweeting more and more, and people would respond. It was really starting to take off, and I was like, ‘Wow, this could have a future.’ All of a sudden, you see people all over Twitter – journalists, people tweeting workouts – and it’s taken off.”

The Zayats haven’t just shared positive news. In the summer of 2012, shortly after winning the Haskell Invitational, their colt Paynter became ill, eventually developing a life-threatening case of colitis and the developmental stages of laminitis. Ahmed and Justin Zayat shared updates on the colt’s condition – sometimes multiple times daily – and photos of their visits with him in an upstate New York veterinary clinic. He eventually recovered and, after running the following season, now stands at stud in Kentucky.

“I wouldn’t sugarcoat one tweet,” Justin Zayat said of Paynter’s saga. “I would take the pictures and tweet it and just let everyone see what we were going through. Literally, there were times when they were telling us we may need to put the horse down soon, and we would just tell everyone, ‘This is what the status of the horse is right now, and he’s trying, and he’s fighting.’ We would tell everyone his vital signs. People were lighting candles. All of a sudden, I come to the office one day, and there’s flowers on our door.”

More recently, the Zayats have gotten to share happier behind-the-scenes moments with their Triple Crown winner. On July 22, Justin Zayat posted a photo of his father and Baffert sitting in the straw with American Pharoah at Del Mar, enjoying “quality time.” Fans responded, sharing or favoriting the post several hundred times as of Wednesday night.

“People like that,” Justin Zayat said. “They like seeing the connection between the owner and the horse.”