Twitter enhances fan experience

Through social media, trainers such as Doug O'Neill have found other ways to get their messages out. AP Photo/Garry Jones

The whimsical 1950s television series "Mr. Ed" entertained viewers with comic escapades from a talking horse and his human sidekick, Wilbur. According to the theme song, "nobody talks to a horse, of course …" Or can they?

This year racing fans are interacting with top contenders on the Triple Crown trail -- such as 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby and West Coast speedster Goldencents -- through the Twitter accounts managed by their connections. From reported workout times to next-race plans and jockey assignments, information distributed via social media in first-person narrative gives racehorses a human element, fostering an athlete-fan connection the sport had been missing until now.

"I'm Starlight Racing's Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion and Eclipse Award
winner for Champion Two-Year-Old Male," reads the profile description of Shanghai Bobby (@ShanghaiBobby10). "I love to run and I looove winning!!!"

According to Kelly Wietsma, whose public relations firm Equisponse works with well-known racing outfits like Starlight Racing, in many cases fans are getting information via Twitter "straight from the horse's mouth."

"Someone running that account who is in the barn, around the horse every day, is going to be able to offer a very well-informed connection," Wietsma said.

One such social media manager is Sharla Sanders, who works with 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winning trainer Doug O'Neill (@DougO'Neill1). Her duties include managing the Facebook and Twitter accounts of Derby contender Goldencents (@TheGoldencents) and his lesser-known stablemates Know More and He's Had Enough, as well as the account of retired champion-turned-stable pony Lava Man (@IamLavaMan). Last year she was in charge of the account for Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another; she said "Team O'Neill" has been running Twitter accounts for their contenders for the past 18 months.

We were on the early wave of things with Lava Man and I'll Have Another, but toward the beginning of this year you started to notice, almost anyone who thought they had a Derby hopeful had a Twitter account.

-- Sharla Sanders, social media manager for trainer Doug O'Neill

"Racehorses having a Twitter account is becoming extremely popular," Sanders said. "We were on the early wave of things with Lava Man and I'll Have Another, but toward the beginning of this year you started to notice, almost anyone who thought they had a Derby hopeful had a Twitter account."

Sanders said knowing the horses in O'Neill's barn gives her the ability to create a certain voice for each Twitter account. She tries to key in to something unique to each runner.

"It gives you a really insider perspective; you have the immediacy of knowing what's going on around the barn," she said. "If you actually know the horses and are around them, you can create a personality for them. That's what the fans connect to, the voice you create for that horse.

"Lava Man, other than just being a seasoned racehorse, carries himself with a certain air," Sanders said. "To this day he looks like he could go run on the track; he knows he's something special. Goldencents right now is just like a little boy trying to figure everything out. He's learning that interacting with people is a good thing, getting to know his owners, not trying to nip at them, learning his manners. The first time he ever took a peppermint as a treat, he had the silliest look on his face. I snapped a picture and tweeted that out, and people reacted to it. The next thing you know, they're sending peppermints to the barn."

"I am a 3 yo colt on the Derby Trail," reads Goldencents' account.
"I won the Delta Jackpot and Sham. This is my OFFICIAL account. Owned by WC Racing,
Dave Kenney & Coach Rick Pitino."

"It's a great thing for the sport because it gives people an opportunity to interact or connect with a particular barn, and when you have the opportunity to be on the Derby trail, the fans can catch a little piece of that excitement themselves," Sanders said. "You're able to positively promote the sport of horse racing."

Not much differs from the equine athletes whose connections run their Twitter accounts and the human athletes who also use Twitter to communicate and reach out to fans. In fact, you could inconspicuously mix many of Goldencents' tweets right in with those sent out by high-profile figures like Tiger Woods or Dwyane Wade.

"These horses are athletes, just like Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps, and they deserve to be thought of as athletes," said Steve Herik, who manages the Twitter account of 3-year-old contender Dewey Square (@RunDeweySquare).

Although the Dale Romans trainee has faltered somewhat on the Kentucky Derby trail, Herik continues to utilize the account as a way to promote the horse and his owner/breeder, Siena Farm (@SienaFarmKY).

"It's been a huge learning curve as to how to make things work PR-wise, how to get the word out there that there are some horses to be looked at and followed as well," Herik said. "First of all, it's a fun way to connect with the fans who will say 'Wishing you well, wishing you luck in your next race,' and second of all, it helps to use social media to call attention to a great sport with some seriously impressive athletes."

Also like major athletes, some horses are represented by unofficial fan accounts. Highly regarded Tampa Bay Stakes winner Verrazano (@VerrazanoColt), for instance, has an account that is not affiliated with his ownership group, Let's Go Stables (@LGSRacing). Lecomte Stakes winner Oxbow actually has two accounts, neither of which is official. For the most part, however, even the pseudo-accounts seem to benefit fans as those who run them tweet information on workouts and retweet links to articles about the contenders.

With the nation's thoroughbreds captivating social media, horse racing has proved that it has a robust hold on the national psyche and a special place on Twitter.

-- Stephen Panus, VP of communications for America's Best Racing

The sport of horse racing itself has found an ideal medium in Twitter, a social media network tailor-made for racing's fast-moving and communal world. Top events in horse racing dominated discussions leading up to the 2012 Triple Crown, with prep races such as the Bluegrass Stakes, the Florida Derby, the Spiral Stakes, the Santa Anita Derby, the Wood Memorial and others all trending.

"With the nation's thoroughbreds captivating social media, horse racing has proved that it has a robust hold on the national psyche and a special place on Twitter," said Stephen Panus, vice president of communications for America's Best Racing. "Horse racing's high-profile events and the horses who compete in them routinely trend on Twitter. The sharing of key data and information via Twitter plays a key role in raising awareness and appreciation for the sport and its big race-day events."

Horses aren't the only ones on Twitter -- top jockeys, trainers and owners are using the platform to communicate with fans -- but they may be the most fun to interact with.

"It just shows how easily you can create a personality for a horse," Sanders said of Goldencents. "He gets asked if he has a girlfriend, people want to send him cookies and peppermints, they want to know if he likes his groom, what he does when he's not racing. They ask him, 'How do you type on a keyboard?'"

For a list of 2013 Triple Crown contenders on Twitter, click here.

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer who covers horse racing for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. Follow her on Twitter @bh_cnovak and read more of her work at www.bloodhorse.com.