Friday, October 30, 2009

Rock-A-Bye Barbie

Isn't it fitting for a horse called Barbie to run in a race called the Princess Elizabeth? The Princess Elizabeth is no ordinary Thoroughbred race: each year, it showcases some of Canada's top two-year-old fillies, its Canadian-foaled classification making it an important stepping stone to next year's Canadian filly classics. The Princess Elizabeth is no ordinary race, but then again, Barbie is no ordinary horse.

Barbie is the pseudonym for Silent Wisper, a blonde-highlighted red head by Wando, out of Silent Course. At two years of age, Barbie seems to have grown into a patchwork of her parents, her slender build and cantankerous personality a mirror image of her mother. Barbie has a sweet side though, and this and her brightly burnished copper coat are the trademarks of her father.

Silent Wisper was born February 22, 2007, at around 5:15 p.m. While I have attended and assisted in a few handfuls of foalings (as many as possible) at Schonberg Farm, the birth of Barbie marked a special evening for me for two reasons: while I had observed a few foalings, Barbie's was the first birth I assisted in. Secondly, Barbie was our first Wando. This spindly little filly was by the horse that has been the cornerstone of my life with Thoroughbreds.

As I toweled off wet little Barbie that cold February evening, I was overcome with the exhilarating emotion of it all. It was at this time that my future was decided: I would spend my life in broodmare barns, caring for broodmares and helping little ones grow. About 10 years previously I had decided on a career with horses, but no pathway had yet been paved. My options were many, but on this night, because of Barbie, I knew that this was what I had to be doing. While I hope to spend the next few years dabbling in many facets of the Thoroughbred industry, my heart is still calling me back to the foaling barn.

Three weeks ago Barbie broke her maiden at Woodbine, becoming our first Wando winner. This week, she was our first Wando entered in a stake, and tomorrow, we will be cheering for her to become ours, and Wando's, first stakes winner.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Seven reasons to celebrate

Tomorrow's eighth race at Woodbine marks the career debut of All Sevens, a three-year-old filly owned and bred by Gus Schickedanz and trained by Mike Keogh (and raised at Schonberg Farm!) At first glance, "Sevens" is as ordinary as they come: a plain bay with a hint of a white star, she isn't the first to catch your eye. Her features seem exaggerated: her head is a little too large for her body, her eyes a little too big and wide set for her head. Her jaw appears to be stolen from a larger creature, her bottom lip flapping lazily as she beckons you her way. Her legs are not those of a runway model; her walk is more reminiscent of a thug than the lady athlete that she is. Despite these imperfections, however, Sevens is the most impeccably bred horse in the barn. By leading sire A.P. Indy, Sevens is the first foal out of the stakes winning mare Six Sexy Sisters. Sevens' second dam is Kathie's Colleen, 2008 Canadian Broodmare of the Year. In addition to Six Sexy Sisters, Kathie has produced Wando, 2003 Canadian Horse of the Year and Triple Crown winner, and stakes placed multiple winner Half Sister.

It is not Sevens' attractive pedigree, however, that melts my heart. Here are the reasons I will be celebrating tomorrow when Sevens enters the paddock for her first race:

1. I recall December 2005, roughly a month before Sevens was born. I spoke with Lauri on the phone about 7 p.m. one evening. He was in the barn keeping an eye on Six Sexy Sisters, and said he hadn't been this nervous for a foaling in a long time. An A.P. Indy was a big deal for us, and the first foal out a young, beautifully-bred mare was sure to be special.

2. Despite my efforts to attend the foaling, the first time I saw Sevens she was already a week old. While most foals typically scatter and hide behind their dams at the sight of a stranger, Sevens was at the stall door before I could open it, ready to inspect me. I could tell right away our friendship would be a happy one.

3. As I mentioned previously, Sevens was born with a contracted hind tendon. Most of my night watch shift that first night was spent sitting in the stall with Sevens, flexing her ankle as she snored in the straw. By morning, the end result of the farm staff's efforts the entire week, Sevens was standing with her hoof placed solidly on the ground. Some white-haired scarring is the only evidence that remains.

4. The spring that Sevens became a yearling, I visited Gus's farm in South Carolina. The filly had a rather clumsy walk as a foal, and Lauri wanted to know how she was doing. I wanted to take a video to bring back for him, and headed out to the field to find Sevens sprawled in the grass, the rest of the fillies grazing around her. In all my efforts to make her stand, none prevailed. I poked, pulled, proded, sat on her. My mom worried there was something wrong with her. I said nope, that's Sevens.

5. Sevens' magnetic personally stuck with her throughout her first year of life, and working with her as a yearling was a treat. I clearly remember the day, however, that she turned on me. Thinking this sweet little darling would surely let me pull her mane, I armed myself with the pulling comb and gave a good hard yank on her hair. Sevens was quick to let me know she liked her hair the way it was with flying feet and snapping teeth. I decided to leave her mane just like Sevens herself: tame enough, but a little frizzy and rough around the edges.

6. Tomorrow will mark the one year anniversary of the death of my dear friend Ruth Young. I started working with Thoroughbreds for Ruth when I was 15, and she believed in me so much. Even after she closed her farm, she came to the races whenever she could to watch our horses and to say hi to me. She pushed my journalistic aspirations, and would be thrilled to know that I will be completing my dream internship at The Blood-Horse. For Ruth, I hope that Sevens can make us all proud, because still to this day I know she doesn't miss one of our races.

7. My final reason is another wish from above. Last week, Sevens' two-year-old half sister, Dixie Gal, was euthanized after fracturing her pelvis during training, merely two days prior to her first scheduled start. Dixie Gal was so different from her sister in every possible way, but equally as loved, and for her, I hope Sevens can do this wonderful family's name proud.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Introduction: Hello!

Tonight I finished my thesis proposal. Here is a taste (aka the introduction):

Thoroughbred horse racing has been recognized for centuries as a symbol of high class and nobility. In the early days of the sport, the upper classes around the world would work to acquire the fastest horses, racing them against their neighbours in battles of superiority (Mooney 219). This competition, crowned the “Sport of Kings”, trickled down to minorities and lower classes (Bennett 13). Women were frequent spectators and occasionally participants, while blacks often attended the races and cared for the horses.

Throughout its evolution, horse racing has drawn an enthusiastic fan base mesmerized by the beauty of the moving animal and the thrill of competition and wagering. I fell in love with racing at age 14, and the attraction was instant. I watched my first horse race, the 2002 Kentucky Derby, on my basement television, and the thrill of watching these superior athletes battle neck and neck, stride for stride, gripped my heart like no other emotion I have experienced. Now, eight years later, that grip has grown to a stranglehold. I love horse racing because, despite claims by some that horses are forced to race, it is obvious that Thoroughbreds were born to race, and love to do it. This is why as babies, as young as a few weeks old, they race one another around their paddocks, and why, a few years later, they respond to the challenge of another horse racing beside them, and are often reluctant to stop running at the end of the race.

I could never have imagined that one passion could cause such turmoil of emotions. I cry at empathic wins and hard losses, scream as my picks race toward the finish line, and see my horses as my constant companions and best friends. Being in the presence of racehorses brings out the laughter from my heart and puts a smile on my face that shines straight from my soul. Horses give me so much just by being, a feeling that inspires me to give back to them and the Thoroughbred industry as a whole. Horse racing is my lifeblood and the air I breathe.

In recent years, this sport that I love has been plagued by technological innovations and integrity issues. The introduction of off-track betting parlours and internet and phone wagering has enabled bettors to participate without setting foot on the racetrack. This has challenged many tracks to look for ways to keep bettors coming to racetracks, such as implementing on site casinos (LaMarra). Furthermore, health and safety issues have arisen that racing’s governing bodies, particularly the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) appear to have little control over. These issues, including drug use in horses and injury rates, were compounded and exposed to the public by the highly publicized fatal injuries of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and 2008 Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles. Despite a growing number of safety and integrity initiatives set forth by the NTRA, the transparency of the sport is highly debatable, and the regulation of integrity issues appears to be out of the hands of those in power.

In addition, horse racing is experiencing less and less exposure in the mainstream media. While the expense of advertising is largely at play, keeping horse racing’s biggest events and stars out of the international limelight is ultimately hurting the sport; it makes the task of drawing new fans very difficult. The horse racing fan base is growing older, with not enough new and young followers entering the sport. This can be seen by attending many racetracks: the crowd is largely comprised of middle-aged or older men (Nilsson and Nulden 157). This is a significant problem because if horse racing doesn’t come up with new and innovative ways to maintain and expand their fan base, the sport will continue its downward spiral, a fate that would be devastating to dedicated fans like myself.

Therefore, I would like to study the phenomenon of social media as a marketing tool for horse racing. In conducting research I will consider the question, “can the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing use social media in ways that will help maintain its fan base, and if so, how?” This paper will look at current social media marketing plans currently being used by racetrack and racing-related organizations, and assess their effectiveness based on user feedback. Current literature suggests that sports fans are highly committed to their chosen sport, and spend time learning about and discussing their sport outside of just watching a game or competition. Therefore, I expect to find that social media can indeed be used to engage and maintain horse racing’s fan base. The goals of this study are to assess the effectiveness of social media as a marketing tool for the sport of horse racing and, if this tool is indeed successful, to pinpoint areas of potential growth in developing a seamless marketing plan.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why horses and journalism?

For me, the connection between horses and writing is simple. Horses invoke in me feelings of love and happiness so strong they cannot be conveyed in speech. In turn, writing allows me to communicate those emotions that would not be done justice by the spoken word. When I join the company of my beloved horses, I am hypnotized; a feeling of pure ecstasy spreads through every cell of my body, blanketing me in a feeling of warmth and comfort so pure it is like Christmas morning at home. Nothing can be wrong in this world; how can it get better than this? I reach for my pen. Let me remember this moment. Let me tell the world.