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.