by Ross Peddicord – Maryland Life

“Hey there’s a sure thing running in the 4th race at Pimlico!” The in-house handicapper at Maryland racetracks hasn’t gotten around to tweeting that sort of hot tip yet to racing fans, but the Maryland Jockey Club tracks have begun delving into the brave new world of social media and using it as a marketing tool to attract new fans and to keep existing ones in the loop.

There’s a Laurel Facebook page (as well as ones for Pimlico, Preakness and the Infield Fest), the track’s Aug. 22 Family Fun Day was advertised on Craigslist (the jockeys engaged in a Rody Pony race! Google Rody Ponies on the web to find out what this is about), ad banners for special race days are placed on washingtonpost.com, there is an active group of bloggers alerting fans on track happenings (such as the aspiringhorseplayer.com) and there are Laurel accounts both on My Space and Twitter.

“Hey there is a reggae band playing during the twilight racing card on Friday evening at Laurel. Come on out, it’s a lot of fun.” If you are a Twitter follower of Megan Forshey, you heard it first from her Tweet, sent out to hundreds of followers from her Twitter account. Megan is the 20-something marketing specialist at the Maryland Jockey Club tracks who is devoting more and more of her time to developing social media marketing strategies to attract younger fans to the track.

Danielle Adams over at Pimlico is doing the same thing, geared to Preakness activities with links to radio and television stations, email and text message blasts sent out by NBC during Preakness Week contests and activities, and there are links to fan and chat groups on Facebook sites like iLike for the bands appearing in the Preakness infield.

“This year we put our toe in the water (of social networking for the Preakness), then kind of waded in waist-deep, now we are diving into the (social media) water head first,” said Karin DeFrancis, who for years has specialized in marketing for the Preakness.
What happened to the old race page in the Baltimore Sun?

Just as the old and traditional dinosaur race fans (like me) are bemoaning the death of newspapers and lack of racing coverage in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and other local newspapers, a most amazing thing has happened. It doesn’t matter any more!

This is the bitter irony: a few years ago the local newspaper editorial boards declared that the Maryland racing industry was dying, that their base of fans was dwindling and that their readers didn’t care any more about this “niche” sport. So they decided to cease coverage and also eliminated the race entries and results. Now it is the newspapers themselves who are dying and their dwindling number of readers are getting their information elsewhere, instantaneously on the Net, on I phones and a million other places, race fans included.

That’s just one of the many new developments brought up in a series of informative and dynamic group discussions at the Maryland Horse Forum. If you weren’t there, you missed a captivating day full of information, new ideas and initiatives. But not to worry—about 250 representatives of your industry were there, full of passion, enthusiasm and a positive energy flow that bodes well for a flourishing future for Maryland horse sports. The organizers of this event deserve kudos for not only planning an interesting and timely agenda, but they also brought out the Governor for a lengthy Q & A, including his testy indictment of the lack of action by the Anne Arundel County Council on its lack of choice for a slots facility.

Despite the Magna-owned tracks being placed under bankruptcy protection, the Maryland Jockey Club management team was out in force at the Horse Forum including GM Tom Chuckas, his marketing team of Carrie Everly, Karin DeFrancis, Jacqui Nigh and Phoebe Hayes and racing secretary Georgeanne Hale. They are carrying on full speed ahead as well as they can despite obvious constraints.

“We just found out more and more this is the way people are communicating and we better jump on the (social media) bandwagon,” said Carrie Everly, longtime marketing vice president at the MJC tracks, who said their first forays into social media marketing involved around planning for their College Pride days a couple of years ago.

Social media, she emphasized, is just one more tool in the tracks’ integrated marketing mix. They still use direct mail to connect with a solid base of about 35,000 fans whose addresses have been collected during contests and promotions, buy air time on radio and television, run print ads, have a Premier Player Club, send out e-newsletters and also conduct track tours (by request) for novice race fans and families, stage more and promotions and events, and have started a Racing 101 initiative for new fans who come out to lunch and are educated about the sport by Kathy Dibben, who is both a horse trainer and a mutuel clerk.

“What better person to explain the intricacies of horse racing to a new fan than Kathy,” said Horsemens Relations and Event marketing specialist Phoebe Hayes.

Owners, too, are also getting into the act. Hayes said Curtis Hine, part owner of the Ten Percent Stable, worked out an initiative with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C. to bring out new fans/theatregoers to the track. They went first for a tour of Dark Hollow Farm (David & Joann Hayden in Baltimore County), came to the track for lunch, then had an afternoon tour of the barns at Laurel Park.

“Once people get out here, they realize it’s a lot of fun,” Forshey said.

With the emergence of social media, everyone can be a publicist to promote racing on their websites, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. In the NFL, players are attracting fans to their Facebook sites and with their Tweets. Jockeys and trainers, too, already have Facebook pages and Twitter followers.

And, of course, what MJC is doing is applicable to all horse sports and probably in use by a good many of them.

One thing for sure: Whatever marketing initiatives organizations and businesses do, it is never perceived as “enough.” From someone who has made his living in the marketing arena for nearly two decades, first in a university setting and then at a media outlet, there is the constraint in this market of buying air and print time in the Washington D.C.–Baltimore metro market, one of the priciest in the country.

And whatever you do it is never enough—there are never enough hits, never enough leads, never enough customers, and definitely never enough money!

So you do what you do with the resources you have at hand. With the advent of social media, it is a handy new tool and it is largely free. Everyone can add to the viral network, even old fogeys like me, and spread the good word, whether it’s about a giant-killer filly like Rachel Alexandra or a great Latin band playing trackside at Laurel.

What MJC is doing is a start and we are all learning to use these new tools and outlets whatever field we are in, more and more every day.

But hey, gotta go, time to update my Facebook page!