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Nyquist has verified Twitter account, but horsemen largely struggle to market sport on social media

Baltimore, MD--Kentucky Derby winner, Nyquist shakes during his morning bath at Pimlico. Early morning workouts at Pimlico Race Course.
Baltimore, MD--Kentucky Derby winner, Nyquist shakes during his morning bath at Pimlico. Early morning workouts at Pimlico Race Course. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Three days after winning the Kentucky Derby, Nyquist spoke.

Kind of.

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"My official check mark, how many race horses have this stamp?" wrote @TheNyquistHorse, the official Twitter account for the undefeated 3-year-old colt. Below the May 10 message was a photo of the account itself, unexceptional except for the blue "verified" badge now next to the name.

Nyquist's question was not unresolved for long. He has thousands of followers, and the message was retweeted by dozens. The answer spoke at once to the potential and the problems of horse racing in this age of social media: Nyquist was the first horse on Twitter with a verified account.

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Sure, it is not unfair to ask: What good is a seal of authenticity from a social-media platform used by just an estimated 23 percent of online American adults? After all, Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte (@TheRealPSL) is verified, and a seasonal drink. Miami Dolphins rookie lineman Laremy Tunsil (@KingTunsil78) is verified, too; his account was hacked the night of the NFL draft.

But for the struggling thoroughbred racing industry, at an event like Saturday's Preakness, a check mark can have outsize importance. As the NBA powers its marketing engine this summer with boundless hauls of viral Vines and GIFs, horse racing officials and analysts are confronting the question of how social media can bolster the digital presence of a sport beset by problems big and small.

"For the most part, I think the horsemen, most of them, have no idea how to market themselves," said Sharla Sanders, who runs Nyquist's Twitter account and serves as an operations manager with Doug O'Neill Racing Stable, of which Nyquist is a part. "And it's really a shame, because now you have to in this day and age."

On the racetrack, Nyquist is undefeated in eight runs, but at least his competition typically reaches the starting gate. On social media, he might as well be racing himself.

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Nyquist not only has the sport's lone verified horse Twitter account; of the 11 Preakness contenders, he is also the only one with a presence on the platform (as of Friday night). On Facebook, there is only marginally more parity: Along with Nyquist, just Awesome Speed, Exaggerator and Collected have active pages.

In the 21st century, how much is there to like about a Triple Crown-leg-winning horse when there's not a horse to "like"?

"Horse racing is structurally very different from other sports, in that there is no league office," said Jessica Chapel, a digital-media consultant whose primary client is the Breeders' Cup. "There's no one overseeing these different teams or what people are doing on Twitter. Really, it's ultimately up to participants to what they're going to do and how they're going to approach social media."

For some stables, it is simply a matter of economics. The handle on U.S. races in 2015 was nearly 30 percent lower than the high-water mark of 2003, according to Equibase figures. Also last year, U.S. tracks held the lowest number of races since the early 1960s. With less money to pay out, there are fewer openings in the industry for jobs like social-media manager, a position that in corporate America has become ubiquitous.

It was a 2011 reckoning with those very problems that led The Jockey Club, the breed registry for North American thoroughbreds, to form America's Best Racing. Penelope Miller, senior manager of digital media for the fan development and awareness-building platform, said ABR is intended to a be a "conduit" to greater interest in the sport, "not a stopping point."

American Pharoah answered the question that had hung over every Preakness and Belmont Stakes for 37 years. Which horse would finally end the Triple Crown drought?

No social platform is left untouched, for the smallest engagement might lead to the strongest of bonds. Instagram photos highlight ecstatic fans and handsome horses. Facebook Live and Periscope streams take viewers behind the scenes on shedrow. Pinterest boards include "2016 Triple Crown Trail," "Foals of 2016," even "Sharp-Dressed Men."

"Once people realize that racing is a thing for them, they're in," Miller said. "But just overcoming the perception that it's not for the younger generation, that's the No. 1 challenge we've had to tackle head-on."

Miller called ABR an "event-driven mission," and the industry's most pressing issue might indeed be finding a way to divert money now spent on daily-fantasy-sports outfits like DraftKings to mobile horse-betting platforms for races outside the mainstream.

Beyond the Triple Crown, there are stories to be told about racehorses and the people who work with them, Chapel said. Just as important, the ability to share those moments never has been more universal.

Over time, the widening scope of communications technology is expected to loosen the vise grip of the sport's enduring traditions. Still, decades after trainer "Silent Tom" Smith went to great lengths to keep Seabiscuit's training private from reporters, the war for information still is being waged, and social media can be among its casualties.

On Friday, outside the Triple Crown Room at Pimlico Race Course, Sanders focused not on the opportunities lost but on the communities formed. With the success of O'Neill's stable and her own social-media feeds, more people than ever have felt closer than ever to horses like Nyquist.

O'Neill called the level of fan engagement "a real blessing," and sure enough, win or lose Saturday, his mount will leave Baltimore with more than a few new followers.

"It's already heading that way, and it's just going to become more so over the next five to 10 years," Chapel said. She added: "If you as a human being are not on a social-media platform, people have a hard time figuring out who you are. It's going to be the same thing for horses."

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer



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