Social media, transparency good for the sport
Craig Bernick believes if you're going to celebrate the highs in horse racing, you can't run and hide when you are hit by the lows. Bernick, grandson of Glen Hill Farm founder Leonard Lavin and president and CEO of the racing and breeding operation since April 2008, took to Twitter and Facebook after Banned's exciting come-from-behind nose victory in the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby on Sept. 4.
“Banned!!!!! We finally won a photo in the Del Mar Derby,” Bernick wrote on the Glen Hill Farm Facebook page. “What an awesome horse. So thankful to have him.”
Less than three weeks later, on Sept. 22, Bernick, preparing for a vacation in Europe to celebrate his recent marriage engagement, received a call from the family's longtime trainer, Tom Proctor, telling him the Kitten's Joy colt took a bad step pulling up after a workout on the Santa Anita Park turf course and suffered a life-threatening injury.
He didn't run and hide.
Instead, Bernick punched up the following on his Twitter account (@craigb1818). “Banned injured himself pulling up after an easy half mile work today. He fractured both sesamoids in his right ankle. Trying to save him.”
Bernick sent several more Tweets out that day, letting fans of the horse know exactly what was going on, even sharing the grim diagnosis from the attending veterinarian that Banned had only a 20% chance to survive. He also provided an update on Twitter after surgery to repair the injured leg was done two days later. “Banned's surgery went well, he's back in his stall and doing well. Hoping he continues to be a good patient.” He posted a comment on the Paulick Report, too, in response to questions from readers about how the injury may have occurred.
Bernick, who said Banned still has a long way to go before he's out of the woods, knows how attached people can get to horses, and said social media was the best way to communicate with them. Still, he was surprised at the reaction he received to his posts on Facebook and Twitter since Banned's injury. “It was amazing how many people were interested in the horse, thankful for us trying to save him, and for us communicating what was going on with him,” he said Monday morning.
What's remarkable to me – but not to Bernick – is how Tom Proctor, who in my book is as old school as they come in the world of Thoroughbred trainers, has adapted to this kind of transparency in communications. Tom is the son of Willard Proctor, a consummate horseman who was Leonard Lavin's first trainer in the mid-1960s. Tom's brother, Hap, manages the Glen Hill Farm operation in Ocala, Fla. The Lavin and Proctor families have been nearly inseparable over the last 45 years. I doubt very much that if Willard Proctor was around today he would be Tweeting about his horses.
“I feel blessed to grow up around Hap and Tom Proctor and feel I've got the best trainer in the world and the best farm manager in the world,” Bernick said. “Tom is the most old-school guy as far as the horse is concerned, but he understands the media and the politics of the business. He's never going to be out there seeking publicity for himself, but he changes with the times. I always kind of chuckled at the Kentucky Derby when a lot of owners who got all that publicity coming up to the race would just sort of hide after they lost. When I took over the business, Tom and I talked, and we agreed that if you want to talk about the good, you've got to be ready to talk about the bad, too.”
I'm not saying this incident is going to prompt Seth Hancock, Dinny Phipps, or D. Wayne Lukas to set up Twitter accounts – at least not yet. It wouldn't be the dumbest suggestion I ever made though.
This could, however, be one of those so-called teachable moments for our industry. Sharing the good news along with the bad. Practicing transparency. Getting the public more engaged. All of those things make horse racing more relevant in the real world. There is far too much secrecy practiced in the industry, too much of a belief that what happens to a horse is privileged information to be kept private among the owner, trainer, and veterinarian.
Banned may still not make it. Bernick said on Monday the latest prognosis is a 50/50 chance of survival. But by going public, sharing whatever news he has, he is letting the public know that they matter.