If you, like me, spend more than half of your life on Twitter, you’ll occasionally notice weird phrases pop up in your trending box. Things like: “The Worlds End,” “Noble Mission” and “Best Solution.”
Shit, what’s going on? you’ll think. Did President Trump just announce a nuclear attack on North Korea?
The panic will be short-lived, however, as you quickly realize that, once again, you’ve been fooled by a racehorse.
Of course, ridiculous racehorse names (e.g., “The Worlds End,” “Noble Mission” and “Best Solution”) aren’t anything new. Since at least the 18th century, owners have named their racehorses “Odor in the Court,” “Hoof Hearted,” “Lucky Strike” and assorted other pun-y mouthfuls that become less and less clever the more you hear them (if they were ever even clever to begin with). In fact, such a seemingly silly tradition is integral to the sport — especially for those who gamble on races and are convinced particular names are luckier and more fortuitous than others. “Sometimes you get a hunch that a horse has potential just by its name — like if it reminds you of a happy moment in your life,” a friend who gambles on races tells me. “Other times, when you’re in the betting shop and a race is about to begin, you go with the horse that sounds like a winner. Barely anyone does in-depth research — it’s a type of betting that’s largely based on your intuition.”
Some racing enthusiasts, however, worry that Twitter and its attendant trending box is making all of this more of a cynical gambit than harmless fun — that is, in the digital age, the act of naming a racehorse might be more a case of an owner wanting to go viral for a few minutes than inadvertently providing a little luck for the men at the betting windows.
“Lots of racing fans really do welcome Twitter to the sport,” says Carl Johnson, a regular racing spectator and gambler who also writes for the racing sites Betfair, William Hill and Racing Post. “That’s why you see racing trending all the time — there’s a big racing community on Twitter. Partly because it’s a global sport, but also because it’s the ideal platform to spread information, rumors, innuendos and inside jokes — all the stuff that makes any sport fun, but would probably get you told off by your wife or kids on Facebook for being embarrassing.”
Johnson adds that there are rules in place when you decide to name a racehorse. Namely:
- They can be no more than 18 characters.
- They can’t be overtly political. (“There are always horse names submitted like Obama, Trump and Marine Le Pen that get rejected,” Johnson says.)
- They can’t be directly vulgar, insulting or derogatory.
“There’s a story about a horse that was called ‘Sofa King Good’ [So Fucking Good — get it?] that had been accepted into some big race a few years back,” Johnson explains. “I have no idea if it’s true. Probably bollocks, but still! That’s the kind of thing owners do that’s a fun part of the sport.”
Or better put, it’s all fun and games until fans think social media has played a role in the naming process. “The accusation that’s sometimes made is that owners give their horses names that, when they trend, make it seem like there’s this big event that’s happened on the news — like some sort of declaration of war or some kind of emergency,” Johnson says. “The names are vague, things like ‘Natural Disaster,’ which obviously when you see it, you want to click on it. Then it ends up being the name of a horse!
“It’s silly,” Johnson sighs, “but people who are annoyed by it are becoming more common in the chatrooms, Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups and so on. They think that giving horses these names cheapens the sport and makes it seem like a joke.”
Johnson tells me that some of this animosity originates from the cultural divide between veterans of racing, and those coming to the sport only when there’s a big competition. “There’s a feeling that owners are trying to put on shows for people who aren’t emotionally invested in racing, its history or its culture — that it’s catering to any Tom, Dick or Harry who shows up to a betting shop with cash in hand.”
The rest of the animosity is due to the usual complicating factors of the internet. In this case, so-called Jockey Baggers, the horse-racing equivalent of a troll. According to Johnson, they’ve been deliberately attempting to provoke jockeys online for “more than a few years” now. “With Twitter, horse racing becomes a nonstop onslaught of bad grammar, bad spelling and small people talking through their pockets and using the most vile language to mentally cripple those they blame for their losses,” Hans Ebert, a Hong Kong-based writer who covers the intersection of horse racing and internet culture, argued in a January blog post entitled, “How Social Media Is Stunting the Growth of Horse Racing.” “Always on their radars: jockeys. Then, there are the horses. Lose on them and they’re ‘cats’ and ‘squibs’ and worse. Bad news travels fast. Ignorance cripples even faster.”
Ebert doesn’t stop there either:
“What many in horse racing on Twitter either fail or refuse to understand is knowing when to back off — knowing when they have crossed that line between engagement and disengagement. [They] never think how their words in a public forum can create such anger from those being pummelled by nonsensical thinking and who have no choice but to confront these trolls in the real world. Having seen this happen, it’s both funny and scary. Suddenly, all that online bluster falls apart. What’s left is a scared little person back-peddling, cowering and begging for forgiveness. All this vitriol and hypocrisy is also hardly good for horse racing.”
Though Ebert acknowledges that almost every social media community and subculture has its fair share of trolling, he believes this toxic environment is worse for racing fans. Not only is their sport “misunderstood by the public” and considered “an unnecessary evil that dangles illusions of false riches and creates an [addiction],” but it’s also a sport where many fans/bettors have ended up with severe depression or even committed suicide. “Horse racing needs to take a long hard look at itself and wonder why so many shy away from it — and bring those back who have tired of the sport or don’t see its long-term future,” he writes.
All of which is why Johnson views the consternation about Twitter-friendly horse names as a window into something deeper. “There’s a fear that social media is taking over the culture of racing — where it’s more important to shame owners — or even fellow fans — than to welcome them into this warm, accepting community,” he explains.
Of course, there’s an irony here. In particular, like every other industry these days, horse racing is actively seeking out a younger audience on social media, concerned that if it doesn’t, the sport will miss a generation and eventually (quickly?) die out. “There’s this big worry among a lot of organizations and racing communities that the younger generation aren’t as interested as they used to be,” says Johnson. “So there’s been a lot of investment in social media — Twitter, but Instagram and Snapchat, too.”
And yet, what it’s creating there in hopes of saving itself might be the very thing that kills it. Or as Johnson says, “If the culture around horse racing diminishes in the next generation, it won’t be because of age gaps. It’ll be because of the toxic parts of the culture that have been left to flourish online.”
Hussein Kesvani is MEL’s U.K./Europe editor. He last wrote about how bootcut jeans could be the key to defeating “hipster fascists” and “dapper Nazis.”