03/22/2012 12:42PM

Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra fans stay informed through social media

Mathea Kelly/Team Zenyatta
Zenyatta at Lane's End with her Bernardini colt, who was born March 8.

LEXINGTON, Ky. − For fans of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, 2012 has been a special year. Both mares, voted Horse of the Year in 2009 and 2010, respectively − produced their first foals on central Kentucky farms. The transition from racemare to broodmare usually takes place well out of the spotlight, and many successful female racing stars fade from view once they arrive at the private breeding farms for their new careers. But Rachel Alexandra’s majority owner, Stonestreet Stables, and Zenyatta’s owners, Ann and Jerry Moss, have provided fans with an unusual amount of detail about these extraordinarily popular new mothers and the births of their first foals.

Keeping devoted fans informed without disrupting a broodmare or farm’s routine is a difficult balance. But Stonestreet Stables’ Barbara Banke, who owns Rachel Alexandra with partner Harold McCormick, says it can help increase the sport’s fan base. To keep fans engaged, Stonestreet regularly updates its Facebook page with information about Rachel Alexandra and her Curlin foal. They also held a contest to name the colt and received more than 6,000 suggestions.

“The athletes, the horses, are only in competition for maybe two or three years or, at a maximum, four years,” Banke said. “In order to have the fans interested in it as a sport, they should be able to follow the athletes and find out how they do after their racing career is over. I personally like it a lot better than just looking at the gambling part. For the sport to be of interest to people, it’s nice to have more family interest and more of the young people interested. We have a lot of young girls who are big Rachel fans, and I’m sure the same happened with Zenyatta. Those are people that will follow horse racing later in life.”

Rachel Alexandra had her Curlin colt Jan. 22. Five days later, Stonestreet shipped mare and foal to the Rood and Riddle veterinary hospital after Rachel Alexandra showed signs of discomfort. The pair was home again several days later after treatment for post-foaling pain. But the incident revealed how quickly the mare’s supporters wanted information.

“The fans were understandably concerned, and we were too involved with getting her to the clinic,” Banke said. “She was fine, but we were all a little nervous at the beginning, so obviously, we weren’t as quick to respond as some of the fans wanted. But you have to draw the line and get the mare to the clinic and then figure out what to do about the fans after that. Ultimately, it worked out. But it was a lesson that people do want to know. And if they don’t know or you can’t tell them something, they’ll imagine other things.”

In Zenyatta’s case, the website Zenyatta.com featured a diary that the Mosses’ racing manager, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, updated regularly to keep fans apprised of Zenyatta’s new life as a broodmare at Lane’s End Farm. Ingordo-Shirreffs penned diary entries as if Zenyatta herself were writing them, a style that didn’t appeal to all. But the diary enjoyed an avid readership that grew as the mare’s March 8 foaling date approached, and it served as a good communications outlet to fans hungry for information. That’s important, said Lane’s End’s general manager, Mike Cline.

“I think what Team Zenyatta has done and been willing to do to share her with the public is important for our sport, and it’s important for Zenyatta’s fans,” Cline said. “Luckily, we have someone that popular that she got this tremendous following, and it doesn’t just go away just because she’s a broodmare.

“You don’t really appreciate how special she is unless you’re around her all the time,” he said. “She’s different. She’s kind, and she’s gentle, and she’s smart. If she could talk, you could probably explain stuff to her. That’s the kind of horse she is. They’re rare, and those are the kind of horses that people love reading about.”

Ingordo-Shirreffs wrote about everything from general racing information to the more delicate topic of Zenyatta’s inability to maintain a pregnancy on her first mating to Bernardini.

“We tried to keep people current, and I tried to write things that were meaningful to the sport and meaningful to her,” Ingordo-Shirreffs said. “I had a man come up to me the other day and thank me for giving he and his granddaughter something new to share. He said, ‘You know, we just sit down and talk about the diary and talk about the life lessons that you’re explaining.’ I tried to put in some things that would be good on that level. I really had intended it, in some ways, to be used like that, for a parent or a grandparent to share with a child, as well as for adults to kind of keep in touch with Zenny.”

On March 13, five days after Zenyatta’s Bernardini colt was born, Ingordo-Shirreffs announced the diary would go on hiatus while the mare “is on child-rearing leave.” Hitting the pause button wasn’t easy, Ingordo-Shirreffs said.

“It’s emotional for me, because it’s been something I’ve done since November of 2010, every day, and I see what it meant to people,” she said. “Not just what was being written, but the bonding that went on with the people. I will treasure it, because they were making friends and going places together. I can’t tell you the countless e-mails and details and photos I was sent. It was like somewhere along the line, this horse has helped to touch people’s souls, and in a way I was able to help her do it in my small way by writing for her.”

Zenyatta.com is still operational, and Team Zenyatta has posted recent photos of Zenyatta and her foal there. They also have a Twitter feed that produces occasional updates. But the diary’s hiatus has had a side-effect: Some fans now are calling Lane’s End directly to get their updates, not realizing that boarding farms can’t always provide information directly to the public.

“My job is to give the owners information and let them do with it as they please,” Cline said. “Some people want it private and protected, and some people are willing to share. The Mosses have always been very forthcoming about Zenyatta, and I think the diary was a good way to share the information. I hope something can be worked out where we can continue to do that, whether it’s the diary or some other form.”

Banke said of fan interaction: “I don’t want to put the obligation on people, but I think it’s something that’s really valuable. If people continue to do it, I think we’ll get more fan interest in horse racing, and we need it. We need more people showing up at the races.”

Rachel Alexandra and her Curlin colt currently are turned out with Hot Dixie Chick and her own Curlin colt.
“They share a paddock, and they’re running around,” Banke said. “They’re both beautiful.”

At Lane’s End, “Zenyatta has really gotten into the motherhood thing,” Cline said. “The foal is quite active and couldn’t be healthier. We’re moving them to a broodmare barn where she’ll be raising her baby, and we’ll keep them in a small paddock for probably another week or 10 days. Then we’ll buddy her up with another mare and foal to get some company for the foal.”